Monday, January 30, 2017

WQXR Broadcast: Staatskapelle Berlin Performs Mozart and Bruckner #7

The Staatskapelle Berlin, led by its Music Director Daniel Barenboim, has spent the latter part of January in presenting at Carnegie Hall the full cycle of Anton Bruckner's symphonies paired at each concert with works by Mozart, many of them piano concertos featuring Mr. Barenboim as soloist.  On Friday evening, New York's classical music station WQXR broadcast one of these performances live.

The program opened with one of Mozart's most enjoyable works for orchestra, the Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364 (1779).  He composed the piece in Salzburg after having just returned from a journey to Mannheim and Paris.  Mannheim had then one of the finest orchestras in Europe and new musical ideas were constantly being introduced by its virtuoso musicians.  No doubt it was at least partly his experience in Mannheim that inspired Mozart to create a work far more advanced than his earlier compositions and one that might well be considered his first great orchestral masterpiece. It was in Paris, however, that Mozart had been introduced to the sinfonia concertante form which was then quite popular there.  An outgrowth of the Baroque concerto grosso, the sinfonia concertante differed from the modern double concerto in its emphasis on the interaction between the two solo instruments rather than on that between soloists and orchestra.  Mozart's preferred string instrument was the viola - he played it when performing quartets with Haydn - and he endowed it with greater prominence in this piece by having it tuned a half tone higher than the violin and then writing the viola part in D major rather than E flat major.  In all, the work displays a wonderful level of adeptness in integrating the sound of violin, viola and orchestra as in the first movement, for example, when the soloists make their initial appearance playing the same notes as the orchestra only two octaves higher.  At the heart of the piece, literally, is the second movement andante unusually set in the key of C minor to create a greater sense of pathos; some critics have seen this as Mozart's elegy to his mother who had died during the stay in Paris.  The featured soloists were the Staatskapelle's concertmaster, violinist Wolfram Brandl, and the orchestra's principal violist, Yulia Deyneka.  Their playing was exceptional, as good as or better than could have been obtained with more famous guest soloists.

After intermission, the broadcast concluded with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-1883, rev. 1885).  Although Bruckner is often mentioned in the same breath as Wagner - the second movement adagio in the present work was actually composed as an elegy in anticipation of Wagner's death - Bruckner, no matter how high his regard for his mentor, was not a fellow Romantic but rather a throwback to an earlier, pre-Enlightenment era in which artists labored anonymously for the greater glory of God.  Even in his personal life, the composer lived the simple life of a medieval monk, or as close to it as one could come in nineteenth century Vienna.  Bruckner was already 60 years old when he achieved his first major success with the No. 7.  The work - dedicated to Wagner's patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria - established Bruckner's reputation as a major composer even though it was savaged by the critic Eduard Hanslick when first performed in Vienna.  Like all Bruckner's symphonic writing, the No. 7 is a long work that never hurries itself; instead, it takes as much time as it needs to build in apparently leisurely fashion to an overwhelming finale.  The influence of Wagner is apparent throughout the piece, especially in the second movement in which the imaginative listener can hear a softly echoing invocation of the gods of Valhalla.  There are several different versions of this work - Bruckner's friends and supporters were always willing to "correct" his works to make them more accessible to audiences - but Carnegie Hall's program notes unfortunately do not indicate which version was used here.  In any event, the symphony was given a thoughtful interpretation that was all the more important since the work is so seldom performed.

The archived performance will most likely be available to listeners for some time on WQXR's website.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Juilliard Piano Performance Recital

I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall on Wednesday afternoon to hear a piano recital, the first of the spring term, sponsored by the Piano Performance Forum.  There were four pianists on hand ready to follow one another at this roughly 75 minute recital that featured the works of a number of different composers from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and there was even, at the very beginning, a piece from the twenty-first.

The program opened with pianist Angie Zhang performing works by Lowell Liebermann and Beethoven.  First came Liebermann's Two Impromptus, Op. 131.  While this may not have been a premiere, the 2016 pieces were so recent that, according to the composer's website, the work will only be "available to the public after June 2017."  They were commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation for the 2016 New York International Piano Competition and were marked as follows: I. Limpido con molto rubato; and II. Molto lento e sereno.  I have not heard a great deal of Liebermann's work, but I found these strongly reminiscent of his nocturnes in their haunting Romanticism. 

The work that followed was Beethoven's Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 (1802).  This was a transitional piece written at the very beginning of the composer's middle period.  In some ways, it appeared to look back to earlier and happier days.  This was most evident in the third movement's graceful minuet, marked moderato e grazioso, the last Beethoven would ever write for a sonata and a throwback to the eighteenth century that had now closed as irrevocably as the first part of Beethoven's career.  The No. 18 was also the last of the sonatas to have been written in the traditional four movements.  But even though the overall mood of the piece was lighthearted - there weren't any slow movements to weigh things down - there were signs of changes to come, most notably in the scherzo's abandonment of ternary form.  It was a difficult piece that here was performed brilliantly.

The next pianist, Thomas Steigerwald, played only one piece - Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907).  I had heard this same piece performed by the same musician at another Juilliard recital in November.  At the time I had compared the work to composer's Sonata No. 3, which I had heard the month before, and had noted the difference in style between that earlier work and the No. 5, written some ten years later.  While the No. 3 was a thoroughly Romantic piece and still deeply indebted to Chopin's influence, the No. 5 was much more modern and displayed a mystical inclination.  This was not at all surprising considering that it was written at approximately the same time as the revolutionary Le Poème de l'extase.  Scriabin himself, when he completed the sonata, thought it the best work he had ever written.  It was certainly not an easy piece to perform - Sviatoslav Richter had termed it "the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertory..." - but the pianist did quite well with it just as he had at the earlier performance.

The third pianist to take the stage was Wenting Shi.  She began with three Études-Tableaux from Rachmaninoff's Op. 33 - the No. 2 in C major, the No. 5 in E flat minor, and the No. 8 in C sharp minor.  Like the Preludes of Op. 32 composed a year earlier, the Études-Tableaux were miniatures that sought to evoke a given mood that was different for each.  They had a disarmingly simple sound that belied the extraordinary virtuosity needed to perform each successfully.  It's worth noting that Rachmaninoff actually composed nine Études in 1911 but chose to include only six when the Op. 33 was first published in 1914.  The No. 5 in E flat minor was only included posthumously in the series but did not seem out of place at this performance 

After the Rachmaninoff, the pianist then played Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in a transcription by Guido Agosti.  Stravinsky actually arranged three distinct orchestral suites at different points in his career, and I am not entirely sure on which Agosti's transcription was based, though it seemed too short in length to comprise all the movements contained in any one of the three suites.  In general, I did not find the arrangement for solo piano as effective as those for full orchestra but that might just have been a matter of personal taste.

The final performer was pianist Yuchong Wu who closed the program with works by Chopin and Gounod.  He began with Chopin's Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No. 3 (1831).  While one has a preconception of Chopin's nocturnes as graceful wisps of music, this piece was actually in ternary form and so divided into three parts; in contrast to the outer sections, the inner section had a much more militant mood.  This was most likely a reflection of the composer's increasing sense of patriotism that had been first stirred by the failure of the November Uprising in Poland the year before and only been made more intense by Chopin's enforced exile from his homeland.

The work that closed the recital was Gounod's Waltz from Faust as transcribed by Liszt.  Like many fervent Christians, Liszt was captivated by the idea of the devil and in 1859, the same year Gounod wrote Faust, had already composed the first of his Mephisto Waltzes.  It was only natural then that he should have been attracted to Gounod's most successful opera.  Strictly speaking, the transcription contained music not only from the waltz scene that concluded Act I but also from Faust's and Marguerite's duet in Act II.  The pyrotechnics at the end were intended to provide the pianist an excellent chance to display his or her virtuosity; at this recital Yuchong Wu took full advantage of the opportunity to give the audience a dazzling display of his talent.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Met Opera: Diana Damrau Sings in Roméo et Juliette

On Saturday afternoon, I walked down to the Met Opera to hear the new production of Roméo et Juliette.  I'd seen this work several times in the 1980's when the great tenor Alfredo Kraus fairly owned the role of Roméo and I felt a strong sense of nostalgia as I prepared to hear a new generation of singers take over the familiar roles.

It's difficult to realize today, so greatly have times changed, that Charles Gounod was one of the nineteenth century's most successful opera composers and his Faust the most popular work in the repertoire.  It was the first opera staged at the Met and is still the house's eighth most frequently performed.  Faust premiered in 1859 at the Théâtre Lyrique and its director, Léon Carvalho, one of the more colorful impresarios of his day, was forever after seeking from Gounod another success of the same magnitude.  At first he was disappointed in his hopes as Gounod turned out three pieces that failed badly, but Carvalho never lost faith and eventually gave Gounod the commission for Roméo et Juliette.  Leaving nothing to chance, Carvalho once again chose the team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who had collaborated on Faust, to write the libretto.  They wisely chose to follow the plot of Shakespeare's play as closely as possible (though they did change the ending to give the lovers a final duet).  Carvalho's wife Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho who had played the original Marguerite was assigned the role of Juliette.  The formula worked and the new opera became the rage of Paris.

Listening to the music, it's easy to understand the appeal that Gounod's music exerted over his audience.  It has a charm that brings this classic love story vividly to life.  At tragic points, Gounod cannily recalls themes from happier moments.  And some of the arias are as beautiful and touching as any in the repertoire.  Yet one has only to hear the chorus that opens the opera to understand the composer's limits.  It simply hasn't the dramatic sweep of a Verdi chorus.  In short, while thoroughly pleasing, Gounod's music is lacking in the depth and intensity that distinguishes a great work of art.

Certainly, Saturday's performance was highly enjoyable.  The conductor was Gianandrea Noseda whom I had heard in November leading the London Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Requiem at David Geffen Hall.  He did an excellent job here with Gounod's music as the orchestra pulled from the score all the passion of young love.  And the cast was superb.  The two leads, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo, though hardly teenagers, displayed enough chemistry between them that the romance seemed real and vital.

The new production by Bartlett Sher had already had successful runs at Salzburg and La Scala by the time it reached the Met.  It basically consisted of one set - a large manor house that evoked the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare's day.  For unspecified reasons, though, Sher decided to move the action to the eighteenth century.  It didn't make any great difference, however, and I doubt the audience noticed the change.  The costumes were still handsome and perfectly appropriate to the action onstage.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Met Museum: Max Beckmann in New York

The title of the current exhibit at the Met Museum, Max Beckmann in New York, is somewhat misleading since the works shown are actually drawn from virtually all periods of the artist's career.  In fact, the show seems to have no clear theme, or at least none that I could find.  It's a retrospective. of course, and yet not nearly so comprehensive as one would have wished to see.  Many of the artist's most important works are present, but there's no way of telling from their haphazard arrangement the manner in which Beckmann developed his distinctive style over the course of his lifetime.  Strolling through the galleries, the viewer has the unfortunate impression that the works assembled were those most readily available.

The critical influence on Beckmann's art was his experience in the German medical corps in World War I.  It's difficult for us in the twenty-first century to imagine the trauma that the sight of so many mangled bodies must have inflicted on the psyche of a sensitive young artist.  As the art historian Ferdinand Schmidt wrote in 1919:
"His [Beckmann's] earlier work seems to have come to an abrupt end.  Those who knew and admired the Beckmann of 1913 may well be appalled by so radical an alteration in style.  There can hardly be any other example in recent German art of such a fundamental change in an artist's approach."
Though Beckmann steadfastly refused to be labeled an Expressionist, it's impossible not to see that movement's influence on his subsequent painting.  Like his compatriots Otto Dix and George Grosz, Beckmann's view of reality as depicted in his work grew increasingly nightmarish and even surrealistic. The events of his own postwar life could only have confirmed this inclination.  He went from being during the Weimar period a successful artist, recipient of numerous awards, and an esteemed teacher at the Frankfurt Fine Arts Academy to life as a reviled exile once the Nazis came to power.  

Nothing so damaged the course of German art in the last century as Hitler's rampage against modernism as no more than "degenerate art."  Along with many other prominent German artists, Beckmann found his work confiscated from museums and galleries only to be included in the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit held in Munich in 1937, the same year Beckmann and his wife fled Germany for the supposed safety of the Netherlands.  Actually, the artist was forced to spend ten years in Amsterdam, most of them as a virtual prisoner once the Nazi occupation began.  It was here that Beckmann painted what was to me the most interesting work on display, Bird's Hell (1938), a rendering of tortured souls that clearly reveals the influence of Hieronymus Bosch.

Even after Beckmann arrived in America, he was unable to rid himself of the paranoia that had enveloped him in Europe.  This can be seen in such paintings as Café Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a hellish representation of the stylish bar at New York's St. Regis Hotel, Falling Man (1950), and above all The Town (City Night) (1950) in which an innocent young female ventures out after dark only to be set upon by New York's nighttime predators.  

There are other important works at the exhibit that should not be missed.  These include several iconic self-portraits done at various times in the artist's life; two of his triptychs, Departure (1932-1935) and Beginning (1949); a number of portraits of muses and other women that Beckmann invariably portrays, except in the case of his wife Quappi, as heavyset temptresses fairly oozing sensuality; and even some bizarre "domestic" scenes, such as The Bark (1926) and Family Picture (1920).

Apparently, Beckmann's primary connection with the Met Museum was his death.  He was actually on his way to the museum to view an installation of his work when he dropped dead of a heart attack on Central Park West two days after Christmas in 1950.  

The exhibit continues through February 20, 2017.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Juilliard Chamberfest: Schoenberg, Beethoven and Dvořák

On Saturday afternoon I attended the last of the Juilliard Chamberfest performances I'd be hearing this season.  The list of featured composers - Schoenberg, Beethoven and Dvořák - was once again eclectic and allowed me to hear chamber works from three very different periods.

The program opened with Schoenberg's Suite Für Kleine Klarinette, Klarinette, Bassklarinette, Geige, Bratche, Violincello und Klavier, Op. 29 (1925-26).  The small ensemble that performed this piece for piano, strings and winds consisted of Seo Hee Min, violin, Hayaka Komatsu, viola, Issei Herr, cello, Sunho Song, E-flat clarinet, Dan Giocobbe, B-flat clarinet, Moran Katz, bass clarinet, and Christopher Staknys, piano; they were coached by Charles Neidich, who also conducted, and Fred Sherry.  Even though the second movement of this piece was originally conceived (tongue firmly in cheek) as a foxtrot, no composer is less likely to be associated in one's mind with big band music than Schoenberg.  Certainly, no one could describe this music as "toe tapping."  This was, in fact, one of the composer's earliest experiments with the twelve-tone system and in its references to dance a successor to his previous suite, the Op. 25 for solo piano, in which each movement had been based on a Baroque dance form.  In this piece too the final movement is marked as a gigue.  If the composer was in a joking mood when he wrote the work it may have been because he had recently married for the second time (after the death of his first wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky's sister, who had embroiled him in scandal when she had run off with the painter Richard Gerstl) and was finally beginning to receive some modest recognition as a composer after years of repudiation.  This took concrete form when he was appointed to the faculty of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1925.

The next piece was Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95 (1810).  It was performed by four pre-College students - Clara Neubauer and Oliver Neubauer, violins, Juliet Duguid, viola, and Charlotte Whatley, cello - who were coached by Sean Lee and Catherine Cho.  Beethoven rarely supplied his works with titles.  Those that have come down to us were usually added by publishers hoping to increase sales with catchy nicknames.  The Op. 95 is an exception in the the composer clearly marked the score Quartett Serioso and then, as if to underline the point, added the term serioso to the markings for the third movement.  And if that were not enough, Beethoven later wrote to the British composer George Smart the following cryptic admonition: "The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public."  Why such uncharacteristic concern on the composer's part?  Most likely it was because Beethoven was here anticipating the great works of his late period.  In fact, there is some question whether the Op. 95 should rightfully be included as one of the late quartets so radical were the techniques Beethoven was here employing for the first time.  It goes without saying that this is a highly complex piece of music whose performance would pose a challenge to even the most experienced ensembles.  That it should be attempted by pre-college students and then carried off so successfully, even if slightly lacking in polish, is a testament to the talent and dedication of those attending Juilliard and to the quality of the education the school provides.

After intermission, the program concluded with Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887).  The musicians on this last piece were Kako Miura and Natsuko Takashima, violins, Stephanie Block, viola, Matthew Chen, cello, and Anna Han, piano; their coaches were Joseph Kalichstein and Daniel Phillips.  There are relatively few major piano quintets in the nineteenth century chamber repertoire.  The form more or less came into being with Schumann's Op. 44 that I had heard performed earlier in the week.  Later in the century, both Dvorak and Brahms tried their hands at it.  The present work was initially conceived as a revision of a youthful work, the Op. 5, for the same instrumentation and in the same key.  I have a superlative recording of both quintets performed by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet that shows quite clearly when played side by side the distance traveled by Dvořák as his talent matured.  The most moving part of the later work is the second movement Dumka in which the composer displayed his mastery of folk sources.  The performance of this work was particularly fine, one of the best given among the Chamberfest recitals I attended.

One of the advantages of Chamberfest is that the programming often allows works in the same genre to be played in close proximity to one another, thus allowing the non-musician to better understand the different ways in which composers approached the same problem.  This season, I had a chance to hear all three of the major nineteenth century piano quintets performed virtually side by side.  I found the differences among the Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák quintets to be greater than the similarities they shared.  Each composer was a genius in his own right and stamped his oeuvre with the force of his personality no matter what the traditions of the times in which he lived.  Hearing the manner in which each came to grips with a genre in which the sound of the piano had to be carefully integrated with that of the strings was extremely rewarding.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Juilliard Chamberfest: Arensky, Harbison and Brahms

On Friday evening I heard at Paul Hall my third Chamberfest performance of  the week.  This time the program included two lesser known works by Anton Arensky and John Harbison as well as one of Brahms's best known chamber pieces.

The recital opened with Arensky's String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894).  The musicians were Ashley J. Park, violin, Emily Liu, viola, and Sarina Zhang and Chloe Hong, cellos; their coach was Darrett Adkins.  A student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky is best remembered today for his position as educator at the Moscow Conservatory where he was the teacher of both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.  Tchaikovsky had also been on the Conservatory's faculty and was greatly admired by Arensky, so it was only natural that shortly after Tchaikovsky's death Arensky should eulogize him in a deeply felt chamber piece.  The quartet eventually became Arensky's best known work, primarily for the second movement variations based on a theme taken from Tchaikovsky's Op. 54, Sixteen Songs for Children.  The mournful tribute was greatly enhanced by the unusual instrumentation; the removal of one violin and the doubling of the cellos imbued the piece with a dark character rooted in the Russian folk tradition.  As for Arensky himself, like a character from a Dostoevsky novel, he died at only age 44, the victim of consumption and alcoholism.

The next work was Harbison's Twilight Music for horn, violin, and piano (1985).  This work was completely unfamiliar to me as, for that matter, is almost all of Harbison's music.   I only knew the composer's name because he had in 1999 written the opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's  The Great Gatsby,  The horn trio instrumentation immediately calls to mind the works by Brahms and Ligeti though there is no indication that Harbison intended the work as a tribute to either composer.  Although the title would suggest the work is something of a nocturne, that isn't evident at all, except perhaps in the final movement.  Rather, for most of its length it sounded static although I was impressed by the balance Harbison achieved between horn and violin.  The trio was performed by Zhi Ma, violin, Thea Humphries, horn, Chenchun Ma, piano, and was coached by Eric Reed and John Harbison himself.  Before beginning, the hornist, in briefly introducing the work, mentioned that it was in one movement but consisted of four sections, the most crucial of which was an inner section that described a tableau in which the poet Hölderin was seated before a book of his poems.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1864) as performed by Brendon Elliott and Xiaoxuan Shi, violins, Jiawei Yan, viola, Tomsen Su, cello, Wenting Shi, piano, and coached by Joseph Kalichstein and Sylvia Rosenberg.  It was this last piece by Brahms that provided my reason for having chosen to attend this particular recital.  After having heard Schumann's Piano Quintet performed on Wednesday I was interested to hear how Brahms approached the same instrumentation.  Actually, though, the work seems to have attained its final form through default after having exhausted other possibilities.  It began as a string quintet (for two cellos rather than two violas) and Brahms must have had substantial reservations about it in this form since he later destroyed the score.   Probably the following criticism he received from Joseph Joachim, on whose advice he relied heavily when writing for strings, only confirmed his own misgivings:
"I do not wish to dogmatize on the details of a work which in every line shows some proof of overpowering strength. But what is lacking is, in a word, charm. After a time, on hearing the work quietly, I think you will feel the same as I do about it."
Nor was the work any more successful in its second incarnation as a sonata for two pianos.  Whatever Brahms thought of the piano quintet genre - he never composed another - he must have seen it as the only solution to this particular problem.  Even so, the work has undisputed power and an almost symphonic breadth at points, and it may be this very aspiration to orchestral complexity that caused Brahms so many problems in the first place.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Juilliard Chamberfest: Ravel and Schumann

Every January, the year's first Wednesdays at One performance at Alice Tully Hall is given over to chamber music as part of the school's Chamberfest program.  On this occasion, the one-hour recital featured the music of two radically different composers - Ravel and Schumann.

The program opened with Ravel's Piano Trio (1914).  It was performed by Chelsea Hyojung Kim, violin, Noah Koh, cello, and Ji Na Kim, piano, and coached by Julian Martin and Daniel Phillips.  Although the work was written on the eve of World War I and immediately before Ravel enlisted in the French medical corps, there is no sense of  impending doom in the trio.  Instead, it concerns itself more with Basque folk music as the composer, who was himself of Basque descent on his mother's side, began work on it while also composing a piano concerto, later abandoned, also based on Basque themes.  In the second movement, Ravel referenced a Malaysian form of poetry in which the second and fourth lines of a quatrain are repeated in the first and third lines of the following verse.  In the third movement passacaglia, Ravel looked back to the musical forms of the Baroque period.  For all its eclecticism, however, the work, written in the traditional four movement format, is thoroughly stamped with the composer's distinctive style.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 (1842).  For this piece, the musicians were I-Jung Huang and Rannveig Marta Sarc, violins, Lisa Sung, viola, Clara Abel, cello, and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano; their coach was Jonathan Feldman. Toward the end of last term, I attended a number of Juilliard chamber music recitals and among the works performed were both Schumann's Quintet and his Piano Quartet, written the same year and in the same key of E-flat major.  Composing works with such similar instrumentation was part of Schumann's normal routine.  When writing music, he would devote himself entirely to one genre and do his best to exhaust its possibilities before moving on to the next.  Thus 1840 had been "the year of the song" while in 1841 Schumann wrote two of his four symphonies.  He was particularly successful in his approach to chamber music.  As the critic Richard Aldrich noted as far back as 1929:
"Schumann’s chamber music of 1842 is in many ways among the most perfect of all the products of his genius; the purest and most powerful in its beauty, the strongest in its form, best balanced in its substance, and best adapted in its technical means and processes to the expression of the composer’s thought."
When I had heard last year the Quartet and Quintet played in such close proximity to one another, I had found it interesting to compare the two works. I discovered that in general the Quintet had a bigger sound that was at times almost symphonic while the Quartet was a more intimate work. There can be no doubt that the Quintet's opening movement, marked allegro brillante, was designed to impress the listener while the funeral march that followed was thoroughly Romantic and at the same time a glance backward toward Beethoven. For the Quintet's end Schumann wrote a vibrant finale that remains among the finest accomplishments. It should also be remembered that this was the first piece by a well known composer to pair the piano with string quartet - an achievement made possible by technical advances in the construction of the fortepiano that allowed its sound to be heard over that of the strings - and Schumann thus deserves credit for having formulated a new musical genre. Although Mendelssohn, filling in for an ailing Clara Schumann at the work's private premiere, made suggestions that led Schumann to revise the work before its public premiere at the Lepzig Gewandhaus (at which Clara did play), the final honors must go to Schumann himself.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Juilliard Chamberfest: Beethoven, Prokofiev and Brahms

Yesterday evening I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the most recent installment of the school's annual Chamberfest series, a week-long festival of notable works from the chamber repertoire performed by students and faculty who have given up a week of their holiday break to prepare for the event.  This particular performance featured an eclectic mix of works by three prominent composers - Beethoven, Prokofiev and Brahms.

The program opened with Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 (1797) as performed by Phillip Solomon, clarinet, Emily Mantone, cello, and Anastasia Magamedova, piano, and coached by Jon Manasse.  Unlike Beethoven's other piano trios, this piece possessed a unique instrumentation in its choice of a woodwind instrument to accompany the piano and cello.  (The composer did, however, publish an alternate arrangement in which a violin replaced the clarinet.)  It's difficult for us to imagine now the grim figure of Beethoven ever being in a playful mood, but in his early days in Vienna when he was still trying to establish his popularity as a pianist he often spun out variations on popular tunes, an exercise at which he was extremely adept and could often perform extemporaneously.  This is just such a piece if a bit more thoughtful than many of the variations from this period that were published without opus number.  The theme here, which appears in the third movement, was based on the aria Pria ch'io l'impegno from the highly successful opera L'amor marinaro ossia Il corsaro written by Joseph Weigl.  It was this third movement theme that gave the entire work its nickname of the "Gassenhauer Trio" in reference to a melody so popular that it is often sung or hummed in the streets. The mood of the entire work was relaxed and genial and a far cry from the high drama that would appear only a few years later when the composer entered his middle period.

The next work was Prokofiev's Quintet in G Minor, Op. 39 (1924).  The musicians performing this piece were Jonathan Gentry, oboe, Wonchan Doh, clarinet, Ariel Horowitz, violin, Alaina Rea, viola, and Sebastian Zinca, double bass; their coaches were Curtis Macomber and Jon Manasse.  This was a rather odd piece, and not only for the unusual instrumentation, and was the result of an ad hoc commission from a choreographer named Boris Romanov with whom Prokofiev had become acquainted while working in Paris with Diaghilev on Chout. Romanov, short of both musicians and dancers, not to mention money, wanted a score for a short ballet he could take with him on tour.  Prokofiev came up with music for a dance piece entitled Trapeze, but when the musicians found the work too difficult to play he salvaged what he could from it for the present six-movement quintet.  It was a rambunctious work - the finale was marked tumultuoso e precipitato - in which the musicians often appeared to be playing off key and out of harmony with one another.  This only made it that much more fun to hear.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 (1890).  The performers on this piece were George Meyer and Byungchan Lee, violins, Meagan Turner and Grace Takeda, violas, and Megan Yip, cello; Ronald Copes was the coach.  The work - written for the same instrumentation as Mozart's renowned "viola" quintets - has become famous for its intended role as Brahms's valediction.  Even before finishing it, he had written to his friend Eusebius Mandyczewski:
"I’ve been tormenting myself for a long time with all kinds of things, a symphony, chamber music and other stuff, and nothing will come of it. Above all, I was always used to everything being clear to me. It seems to me that it’s not going the way it used to. I’m just not going to do any more."
Similarly, when submitting a revision to the final movement to his publisher Simrock, he appended a message that read: ""With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop."  But for a work intended as a farewell, the quintet is unusually expansive and upbeat in nature, most especially in its finale.  Although the slow movements are somewhat contemplative, there is little trace of the sadness and world weariness one would normally expect to encounter in a leave taking.  Nor is it done on a small scale.  Many of Brahms's chamber works seem to strain against the limits of the genre and aspire to an almost symphonic breadth and this quintet is no exception.  The opening theme of the first movement, in fact, was taken according to some musicologists from that of a planned fifth symphony that never came to fruition.  Another point of interest is Brahms's disagreement with the noted violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim on whose advice the composer had always relied when writing for string instruments.  In this case, Joachim had spoken out against the cello's opening melody, claiming that it would be impossible to hear the cello over the sound of the other four instruments.  Brahms initially wavered, but then decided to follow his initial inspiration and let it be.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Met Opera: Plácido Domingo Stars in Nabucco

I went to the Met Opera yesterday afternoon. my first visit to that venue in 2017, to hear the great tenor turned baritone Plácido Domingo take the title role in the early Verdi opera Nabucco.  The performance, which lasted roughly three hours, was conducted by the Met's Music Director Emeritus James Levine.

Nabucco is one of the most significant works in the history of Italian opera.  The third composed by Verdi, who at the time was only 28, it marked the end of the bel canto era and the beginning of a new period in which the importance of dramatic action was to prevail over the beauty of individual arias.  And it almost wasn't written.  Before beginning work on it, Verdi had vowed to give up composing after the untimely deaths of his wife Margherita and their two infant children.  It's true that at this point his career had not really taken off and he had reason to be pessimistic.  His first opera, Oberto, had had only moderate success and his second, Un giorno di regno, had been a dismal failure.  When he began work on Nabucco, it was only because he had become, almost against his will, totally captivated by the libretto by Temistocle Solera with whom he had collaborated on Oberto.  The libretto had already been rejected by the composer Otto Nicolai, who later became a bitter critic after having learned of the opera's smashing success, but Verdi saw in it an opportunity to stage a musical drama on a grand scale.  This was a work whose powerful sweep was worthy of Verdi's music and it provided him the vehicle that first allowed his genius to fully show itself.  The work was an instant hit when it opened at La Scala in 1842 and became the base on which Verdi built his reputation.  It's interesting to speculate what might have become of Verdi's career if he had not been offered this particular libretto at precisely the right moment.

What surprised me most as I listened to the opera was how much of the mature Verdi was already present in this early work.  This is particularly true of his use of the chorus.  As in Greek tragedy, the composer employed the chorus to heighten his operas' dramatic intensity.  And it is this intensity of feeling, this passion, that truly separates Verdi's work from the bel canto period that had flourished before him.  Audiences at performances of his early work must have been stunned by the tempestuous display he unleashed onstage.  Italians themselves are a highly emotional people - one could never accuse them of being stolid or phlegmatic - and in Nabucco surely they heard a reflection of their own mercurial nature.

The performance itself was brilliant.  Levine has always been an excellent interpreter of Verdi, and yesterday afternoon was no exception.  He got everything possible from both musicians and singers without himself getting in the way of Verdi's music.  And he had an excellent cast to work with.  Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, Jamie Barton as Fenena, and Dmitri Belosselskiy as Zaccariam all gave top notch performances.  Even so, Plácido Domingo stole the show every time he appeared onstage.  One only wished that Verdi had written more arias for his part.  The real star, though, was the superb Met chorus.  The high point of the entire opera was their rendition of Va, pensiero which truly deserved the encore it was given.

The handsome 2001 Elijah Moshinsky production has worn well.  With the sets placed on a revolving stage, there was never any unnecessary break in the action.  Instead, events moved smoothly forward to their climax.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Met Museum: Faith and Photography

I went last month to see the Met Museum's Jerusalem exhibit but found this small show, Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land - which I'm sure was planned as an adjunct to it - far more interesting.

Salzmann was one of the early pioneers of photography.  Born in Alsace in 1824, he was a deeply devout individual and began his career as a painter of Biblical scenes.  The same religious impetus eventually led him to study Middle Eastern archaeology in hopes of discovering historical corroboration of Biblical texts.  When he left for the Holy Land in 1853 it was with the intention of using photography to document the sacred sites in and around Jerusalem as evidence that what had been written in the scriptures could still be seen in the structures standing about the city.  In this, he was following in the footsteps of the noted French archaeologist Louis Félicien de Saulcy who had reawakened European interest in the history of the Holy Land.  In other words, Salzmann traveled not so much as a tourist seeking to record colorful scenes but more as a religious zealot seeking visual proof of the word of God.  Photography was accordingly used more as a tool than an end in itself.

Whatever his reasons for photographing Jerusalem, the resulting salt prints from calotype negatives are definitely works of art in themselves.  There is a much greater sense here than in the larger Jerusalem exhibit of the city as a sacred space.  To a certain extent, that is because Salzmann impressed on the photographs his own sense of religious awe as in his depiction of the Valley of Josaphat where the Last Judgment will one day be held.  Another factor to be considered are the beautifully executed salt prints themselves.  If Salzmann's motivation in taking the photographs was unusual, he was still a consummate craftsman. The prints have a clarity that brings the past vividly back to life while still retaining an air of mystery.  This can be seen in a photograph of a minaret built in the year 1297 or in that of the Tomb of Absalom.  Although I was of course familiar with images of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I had never seen photographs of such sites as the Tomb of St. James or the Tomb of Zachary.  They look abandoned here and falling into ruin.

Salzmann did not prosper.  He returned to Jerusalem years later during the renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and was to have done the interior paintings.  Unfortunately, he had a falling out with the lead architect and was dismissed.  He died at only age 47, his faith hopefully still intact.

The exhibit continues through February 5, 2017.