Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Handel, Mendelssohn and Beethoven

Now that Juilliard is entering the second half of the spring term, its Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Morse Hall have once again resumed.  That which I attended this past weekend featured major works by Handel, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

The program opened with a Handel Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV 393 originally for two violins and continuo but here performed by two basses (Szu Ting Chen and Nicholas Kleinman) and piano (Jiaying Ding) under the coaching of Eugene Levinson.  The unusual instrumentation of all lower register instruments created a much different sound than that I've come to associate with the trio sonatas I've heard performed by the Juilliard415.  In those recitals, played on period instruments, there are normally two higher register instruments, e.g., violins, plus harpsichord and cello as continuo.  

It was only after the performance that I learned there is a question as to the authenticity of this Handel work.  According to the Wikipedia article on trio sonatas:
"The attribution to Handel of a set of trios for two oboes and continuo is false, and the authenticity of the three trios HWV 393, 394, and 395 is doubtful or uncertain."
There is no similar comment, however, on the IMSLP website which assigns to the work a composition date circa 1719 and a first publication date of 1733.  Handel would then have been living in London and at the peak of his fame.  It's entirely possible others' works were attributed to him by unscrupulous publishers seeking to increase sales.

The next work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) performed by Hannah Tarley and Yeri Roh, violins, Erica Gailing, viola, Kevin Mills, cello, and coached by Sylvia Rosenberg.  It's no coincidence that this piece was composed in the same year as Beethoven's Op. 131.  Though Beethoven's late quartets had not yet come to be appreciated as the masterpieces they were, and for that matter would not be for many years to come, Mendelssohn was already able, at only age 18, to discern the greatness within them.  He studied the scores and then implemented a number of elements from them, including their cyclic structure, in this his first quartet (the Quartet No. 1 in E flat major was actually written two years later though published first).  It is surprising then that Mendelssohn's work, a conscious tribute to a beloved master, sounds so utterly different from anything Beethoven himself ever composed.  Instead, the Quartet No. 2 is one of the most lyrical pieces ever written, an expression of passionate longing that perfectly typifies the Romantic temperament.  One has to remember that Mendelssohn, however precocious a craftsman he may have been, was at the same time still a teenager.  It's obvious listening to the work that he was in love at the time he wrote it.  Whether this was an actual full blown love affair or a momentary infatuation is beside the point.  The work, which incorporates in its score the title of his song Ist es wahr?, is thoroughly sentimental in character and it is really this that makes it so appealing to listeners today.  It represents one of those rare occasions when Mendelssohn put aside his carefully cultivated genteel persona and allowed his audience a glimpse of the individual who stood behind it.

After a ten minute intermission, the program concluded with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (1808). The musicians were Strauss Shi and Manami Mizumoto, violins, Meagan Turner, viola, and Keith Williams, cello; the coach was violinist Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet.  Although the instrument with which Beethoven is most often associated is the piano, he was also a competent string player.  His first position, in fact, had been as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra.  Bearing this in mind, one can argue that Beethoven's most profound musical works, those in which he sounded the depths of the human spirit, were not the piano sonatas nor even the symphonies but rather his string quartets.  I've always felt, for example, that the greatest work of the early period was the Op. 18, No. 6 with the La Malinconia section in the final movement.  It was here that Beethoven first attempted to sublimate the despair he felt at his approaching deafness and thus anticipated the great masterpieces of the middle period.  Several years passed before the composer again returned to the string quartet genre in the present piece, the first of the "Razumovsky Quartets," and it's at once apparent that a vast transformation has taken place in Beethoven's mastery of the form.  While the Op. 18 quartets were written very much in the shadow of both Haydn and Mozart, those of the Op. 59 are the works of a master fully confident in his own powers and owing nothing to anyone.  Together with the Op. 74 written a year later, the Razumovsky Quartets prepare the way for the late quartets.  But they are also exceptionally important in their own right and together constitute some of the greatest works of the chamber repertoire.

The innovations Beethoven was to bring to the string quartet form are immediately apparent in the first movement of the Quartet No. 7.  It begins with the first theme played by the cello alone and progresses almost randomly through several bars before finally arriving at the home key of F major.  The theme is then handed from one instrument to the next, to be taken apart and examined before suddenly reappearing whole once again.  But there is no repeat of the exposition, as one would normally expect, but instead a further development of the material that culminates in a double fugue.  In the second movement scherzo, Beethoven continues to dazzle the listener with the movement's insistent rhythm and the lack of a traditional trio.  The third movement is perhaps the most perplexing - dark and funereal in a grand manner as if mourning a personal loss.  It is only in the genial final movement that Beethoven appears to relax the tension with a Russian theme doubtlessly intended to please the work's aristocratic dedicatee.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Idomeneo

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear a rare performance of an opera seria, Mozart's Idomeneo, conducted by the company's Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  It was Mr. Levine who first brought this opera to the Met when it premiered there in 1982 and he has been a champion of the work ever since.

The great irony behind Idomeneo is that its composer, who with this work brought opera seria to its greatest heights, was the same who would a few years later put an effective end to the genre with the first of his Da Ponte operas, Le nozze di Figaro.  The present work was premiered in 1781, pursuant to a commission from the Elector Karl Theodor, at a court carnival in Munich.  Though Western Europe was already in a state of unrest as a result of the principles set forth by the Enlightenment (in Germany referred to as Aufklärung), few who attended that first performance could have foretold that in only a few years the French Revolution would have put a violent finish to Europe's status quo.  Still less could they have known that when the French monarchy fell an entire way of life would disappear with it, including such aristocratic pastimes as attending opera seria.  Even the very office of Elector that had existed for almost a millennium and was now embodied by Karl Theodor would vanish once Napoleon had put an end once and for all to the Holy Roman Empire.

If one quality characterized opera seria it was its deliberate rejection of the real world in favor of an idealized  mythical past.  The libretti, written by such renowned poets as Metastasio, dealt with subjects taken from classical antiquity or Greek mythology with protagonists who were invariably of noble birth.  There were no tragic endings because the spirit of the genre mandated that the virtuous be rewarded and the wicked punished.  The music itself was a holdover of Baroque forms as could be heard in recitatives that were accompanied by the traditional continuo of cello and harpsichord.  As for the arias, opera seria was distinguished by the prominence given to castrati singers who were given at least one major role in each production.

Though some musical reforms had already been accomplished as early as the 1760's by composers such as Gluck, the form given Mozart for his first major opera followed the archaic Metastasian model right down to the deus ex machina ending.  The librettist, Giambattista Varesco, was the Salzburg court chaplain and as thoroughly conservative as one would expect of a man in his position.  Admitting to Mozart that he had "not the slightest knowledge or experience of the theatre," Varesco worked from a French text that was already some seventy years old by the time he set about adapting it.

Six years then before he began his collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte, a far more innovative and congenial collaborator (even if one of Metastasio's greatest admirers), Mozart faced the challenge of breathing life into a moribund musical drama whose plot must already have appeared to his audience hopelessly out of date.  In order to accomplish this, Mozart constantly demanded changes from Varesco to the extent that the latter insisted on publishing his original libretto separately.  As Varesco had stayed behind in Salzburg rather than travel to Munich, Mozart's father was enlisted as an intermediary between the two and sought to be as diplomatic as possible in persuading Varesco to alter the libretto whenever necessary to suit the music.  The correspondence between Mozart and his father has survived and provides a great deal of insight into the musical problems the composer faced.  Though he was still only age 25 and relatively inexperienced, Mozart showed in his letters a profound understanding of the dynamics involved in successfully staging a full length opera.

One advantage Mozart possessed was the presence in Munich of the superb Mannheim Orchestra, at the time unquestionably the finest ensemble in Europe.  As a result, he was able to make use of clarinets in his orchestration and had available trombones and horns to mark the power of the final scene at the temple.  Beyond this, he was able to employ at least some of the innovations Gluck had introduced - Mozart had attended performances of Gluck's operas while visiting Paris - to overcome the stiff formality of opera seria.

In the end, Mozart created a masterpiece, a work that overcame the limitations of the form in which it was written to create characters who breathe and feel and who are above all able to attract the sympathies of the audience.  Idomeneo not only stands on its own as a great opera but looks ahead to the far more advanced works Mozart was only shortly thereafter to create with Da Ponte.  And that's what makes seeing this work so exciting.   

Saturday afternoon's performance was superb.  James Levine has demonstrated over and over again that he is the one of the world's foremost interpreters of Mozart, and he did so again on this occasion as he brought to life the composer's first great operatic masterpiece.  He was supported by a fine cast.  Matthew Polenzani stood out in the title role but it was Elza van den Heever, whom I can't remember ever having heard before, who stole the show in her final Act III aria as Elettra.

The original 1982 production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has stood the test of time very well.  Though it's monochromatic coloring makes it appear drab, it's workmanlike and much less ostentatious than more recent Met productions.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

William Blake

Perhaps no British literary figure is so hard to classify as William Blake.  For one thing, he was a much a visual artist as a poet and it's impossible to study the one aspect of his art independently of the other.  Then again, there is the deliberate veil of ambiguity - in the manner of his self-assumed role of prophet - that he placed over almost all his works, which ranged from the children's Songs of Innocence to the theological opus The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  While the period in which he lived coincided with the Romantic era and his work sometimes exhibited that movement's preoccupations, he had little in common with the great Romantic poets and no association with any of them.  To the extent he was known at all to his contemporaries, he was viewed as eccentric to the point of madness.

The large format study simply entitled William Blake, edited by  Robin Hamlyn, Marilyn Butler, Michael Phillips, was originally published to accompany a 2000-2001 exhibit at London's Tate Gallery and accordingly concentrates on the visual work while at the same time seeking to place it in the context of his writings.  It begins with two short essays by Peter Ackroyd and Marilyn Butler and is then divided into four parts that deal respectively with his interest in the Gothic ("One of the Gothic Artists"), the development of his visionary art in the 1790's ("The Furnace of Lambeth's Vale"), the outline of his personal mythology ("Chambers of the Imagination") and finally an overview of his illustrated books ("Many Formidable Works").

Blake began his career as an engraver's apprentice and part of his training required him to spend long hours at the British museum making copies of masterpieces from classical antiquity.  He became expert at the etching process, a detailed description of which is included at the beginning of the second section, and managed to produce with this method vividly colored "illuminated prints."  Blake did not limit himself to this medium, however, and many of the illustrations he completed are in the form of watercolors or pen and ink.  As for painting in oils, he identified that with the Renaissance rather than with the Gothic period to which he was most drawn and so did not make use of them.

Blake was an extreme individualist and, as such, determinedly at odds with almost all forms of organized religion.  This can be seen clearly in his illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy.  For example, Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo are shown embracing in the light of the sun rather than suffering in hell as Dante depicted them.  Blake's outspoken views on religion and personal freedom put him in danger of imprisonment during the time of the French Revolution when the English government under William Pitt clamped down on any form of expression that might conceivably be considered seditious.  Print shops were especially singled out as sources of objectionable material.  Blake had already in 1780 taken part in a mob attack on Newgate Prison.  In 1803 he was accused by a soldier of assault and of having cursed the king.  He was eventually exonerated at trial.

The real draw of this book, published by Abrams, is the excellent quality of the reproductions.  No matter what one may think of Blake, there is no denying the compelling quality of his artwork.  Perhaps because he stood so far outside the margins of his own era, his work speaks more directly to the modern sensibility than most of that produced in the early nineteenth century.  The visionary aspect is so imaginative that his illustrations at times appear to belong to the realm of science fiction (e.g., "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun").  At the same time, they possess a deep psychological penetration and occasionally operate on an almost existential level.

One curious feature of the book is that, although descriptions of all the works shown in the exhibit are included, many of the artworks themselves are not.  No explanation is given for their absence.  The Foreword mentions that the show was reduced in size when it traveled from the Tate to the Metropolitan Museum and perhaps the missing illustrations are those that were not included in the New York show.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Dvořák Piano Trios

Yesterday afternoon I walked down to Juilliard to hear a faculty recital at Morse Hall that featured Laurie Smukler, violin, Joel Krosnick, cello, and guest artist Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano, in a performance of two Dvořák piano trios.

The program opened with the Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 (1883).  Though not so well known as the No. 4, this trio represents one of the composer's greatest achievements in chamber music.  It was written a few years after Dvořák had won the 1877 Austrian Prize and had, with the assistance of Brahms and Hanslick, established an international reputation following the publication of the Slavonic Dances.  In light of this, one would have expected to find Dvořák in a cheerful if not exultant mood.  But not in this work.  It is instead, as the use of minor key would indicate, one of the composer's darker and more serious works.  This is particularly true of the third movement adagio in which some have heard a lament for Dvořák's recently deceased mother. Or it may be that things were not progressing as smoothly in Dvořák's career as they appear in retrospect.  In the same year the trio was composed, Dvořák's violin concerto was premiered in Prague but not by his close friend the virtuoso Joseph Joachim who had expressed reservations regarding it.  Meanwhile, the Vienna Philharmonic, in a spiteful show of nationalism, had rebelled against its leader Hans Richter and had refused to premiere the Symphony No. 6.  In any event, the trio, especially in its outer movements, was one of those works that most clearly showed the influence of Brahms.  But no matter how deep a reverence Dvořák felt for his mentor, he never blindly followed the Classical structure Brahms espoused in his own work.  For example, in the second movement scherzo, where the composer's Bohemian roots are most evident, Dvořák did not include any repeats as the form traditionally calls for but instead skillfully inserted in their place slight variations on the preceding material that created in the listener's mind the illusion of a repeat.  

The second and final work was the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 (1891), nicknamed the "Dumky" for the Slavic musical form that appears throughout the work.  If in the No. 3 Dvořák had appeared to vacillate between the Bohemian music that had inspired his earliest efforts and the Classical Romanticism of Brahms, he had by the time the No. 4 came to be composed some eight years later managed to reconcile the two.  In the No. 4, Dvořák can be seen returning to his roots with this unapologetic celebration of the dumka and by extension the entire Slavic folk tradition.  The dumka itself is characterized by wild swings between despair and exuberance, and Dvořák made full use of its bipolar nature in all six movements of the trio.  As the composer phrased it:
"It will be both happy and sad. In some places it will be like a melancholic song, elsewhere like a merry dance; but, all told, the style will be lighter or, if I might put it another way, more popular, in short, so that it will appeal to both higher and lower echelons."
And Dvořák certainly did succeed in creating here one of his most popular works.  Its general character is lighthearted and it seems as if a weight had been lifted from the composer's shoulders as he prepared to embark on his journey to New York.  More importantly, in this final piano trio he reaffirmed his belief in the value of folk sources, an interest he would pursue further in the music he wrote in America.

One could not have asked for a better performance of these Dvořák trios than that given yesterday.  All three musicians were consummate professionals who played the music with both precision and feeling.  This was a truly excellent chamber recital that helped one better appreciate the extent of Dvořák's genius.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Richard Goode Performs Bach

On Wednesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the pianist Richard Goode perform works by J.S. Bach, universally regarded as the greatest composer of the Baroque era.  

The recital began with a series of selections from Book II of Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier.  These were, in order performed, the Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor, BWV 883, the Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 884, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 889, and the Prelude and Fugue in B Major, BWV 892.

Perhaps no other musical work has had so profound an influence on both composers and musicians as has the WTC.  In the Classical era, when Bach and his works had been largely forgotten, Haydn was among the first to recognize its importance and to study it intensely.  Both Mozart and Beethoven owned copies of the score and made use of its exercises to perfect their own contrapuntal writing.  One can see in the last movement of the former's Symphony No. 41 and in the latter's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, how deeply these two composers applied themselves to mastering its lessons.

The WTC, whose confusing title has to do with a particular method of tuning keyboards, was written in two parts, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742.  Both were used primarily for pedagogical purposes while at the same time serving as a vehicle intended to showcase the composer's mastery of counterpoint.  In a certain sense, both parts, known as Books I and II, overlapped one another as each presented exercises for all 24 major and minor keys.  In fact, some of the those that appeared in Book I were used again in Book II but transcribed for different keys than in the original.  Chopin later adapted this same idea in the composition of his Preludes, Op. 28 which were again written for all the major and minor keys.  While Bach intended the work for the use of his students, and indeed required them to write out all the preludes and fugues in their own hand, each is technically challenging and can only be attempted by an exceptionally skilled pianist.

The first half of the recital then concluded with a rendition of Bach's Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830 (1730).  The work is a suite of seven dance airs, the last of a series that were published individually over a six year period and then gathered into a single publication entitled Clavier-Übung I ("Keyboard Exercises I") in 1731.  If for no other reason, the collection is notable for having been the first published during Bach's lifetime.  Bach was then, at age 45, hardly an old man but this series marked his third and final set of keyboard suites, following the English Suites (1715) and the French Suites (1722-1725).  They were also the most technically difficult of the three to perform.  While suites of dance airs were a staple of Baroque music, this final set of partitas, most especially the No. 6, have much greater depth than one would ordinarily expect of such a work.  There is a sense throughout of strong emotion held rigorously in check.  This can be sensed at once in the opening Toccata that is at once the longest movement in any of the six partitas and at the same time one of the most profound in its subtle shifts of mood.  At the heart of the work is the Sarabande, on its surface a calm and slightly old fashioned sounding air but underneath filled with dark longings that do not easily correspond with the modern image of Baroque music or, for that matter, of Bach himself.

In the second half of the recital, Mr. Goode was scheduled to perform a number of short works by Chopin.  Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, I was unable to stay for this portion of the unusually long program.  I was quite happy, however, to have heard nearly an hour of Bach's immortal music played by so fine a musician as Mr. Goode.  I've heard him many times over the years and have always been impressed, not only by his impressive technique, but also by the deep feeling and understanding he evidences toward the music in all his performances.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Reicha, Beethoven, Schumann and Franck

I've been so busy the past few months that I haven't been able to attend nearly as many performances by the Jupiter Players as I would have liked.  That's a shame because this is really a first class ensemble even if the programs offered are often somewhat obscure.  That given on Monday afternoon at Good Shepherd Church, however, consisted of works by relatively well known composers - Anton Reicha, BeethovenSchumann and César Franck - though two of the pieces were youthful attempts written at the very beginning of their respective composers' careers and a third was a transcription of a work far more familiar in its original form.

If one wishes to become better acquainted with Beethoven's early works there's no better place to start than the Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3 (1785).  Written when Beethoven was only 15 years old, the three quartets that make up WoO 36 - the only examples of this genre Beethoven ever composed (the Op. 16b is an arrangement of a quartet written for piano and winds) - provide a fascinating glimpse into the manner in which Beethoven first set about becoming a composer.  All three quartets were inspired by Mozart violin sonatas, the C major by the K. 296, and Beethoven made free use of the ideas contained within them, including their use of a three movement structure.  Passages from the C major were in turn reworked ten years later, Ferdinand Ries's protestations to the contrary, and then inserted into the Op. 2 piano sonatas.  Still, one has to bear in mind that the C major is really only a student work.  At the time Beethoven wrote the quartet he was at the very beginning of his career and the piece's primary value is the insight it affords the listener regarding the direction this precocious teenager would pursue in his later work.

The piece that followed, Reicha's 18 variationen und fantaisie on "Se vuol ballare" from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Op. 51 (1804) for flute, violin and cello, was a very enjoyable work to hear.  At the time he wrote it, Reicha was still a struggling composer attempting to find success in Vienna where he became a close friend of Beethoven.  Anticipating his later career as an instructor at the Paris Conservatory, Reicha had completed during this period two major musical works, one on a new method of composing fugues, incorporating within it the use of polyrhythm, and another on the art of variations from which the present work was derived.  In it, Reicha had an opportunity to further develop the ideas he had advanced in L'Art de varier without becoming overly pedantic.  Whatever its pedagogical purpose, the trio was more mellifluous than much of Reicha's music, though that may have been largely due to the beauty of the aria that formed its source material.

The next work was Schumann's famous Kinderszenen ("Scenes of Childhood"), Op. 15 (1838), here transcribed for string quartet by Benjamin Godard, a French composer active in the second half of the nineteenth century.  I had only last month attended a performance at Juilliard where I heard the music in its original form for solo piano.  In my post describing that performance I had noted that a distinguishing feature of Schumann's piano music was its programmatic content.  His evocation of childhood might also indicate, I felt, a retreat from the problems of his present life to a more idyllic time and thus represent an early symptom of the mental breakdown that was to occur sixteen years later.  In any event, the thirteen short movements that make up the piece are as sensitive a description of childhood as one could wish.

At the time Godard completed the transcription there was a very good reason for his having done so.  In the days before radio and phonograph recordings, musical pieces were often arranged for other instruments so that they could be played at home or in informal gatherings by amateur musicians and thus, not incidentally, increase the publisher's sales figures.  This transcription is largely successful in capturing the beauty of Schumann's music and it was certainly expertly performed at this recital; nevertheless, I still strongly prefer hearing the piece in its original form for solo piano which was, after all, how Schumann intended it to be played.

After intermission, the program closed with Franck's Piano Trio in F-sharp minor, Op. 1. No. 1 (1840).  Franck was only age 18 and still a student at the Paris Conservatory when he started on this work and his lack of experience as a composer is evident throughout.  The work is to a large extent a by the book, academic exercise written in the heavy handed style one would expect of a fledgling composer.  There's a paucity of musical ideas; themes are repeated over and over, one feels, because Franck was unable to come up with any new ones.  Not surprisingly, the criticisms most often leveled against it are "plodding" and "monotonous"; these, however, do not take into account the lyricism that is present throughout the piece and that would characterize Franck's later music.

Franck has never been one of my favorite composers - like many French artists, he routinely produced work that often seems a triumph of style over substance - but this was actually the second time I'd heard his music within a month.  In February, I was at a Juilliard recital when the same pianist, Drew Petersen, performed the keyboard part on the scandalous Quintet.  That was a much more polished work than this but utterly lacking in emotional discipline.  Still, it was interesting to compare the the two works written almost forty years apart to better understand how Franck's style evolved over the years.

After not having attended any Jupiter recitals for some time, I was reminded on Monday afternoon what a fine group of musicians this is.  Of the regular company, flutist Barry Crawford stood out during the performance of the Reicha trio while violinist Lisa Shihoten and cellist David Requiro were excellent on strings in all the pieces on which they played.  The two guest artists, violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Drew Petersen, were both superb musicians one would normally expect to encounter only in much larger and prestigious venues.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Japanese Art Dealers Exhibit

I went on Saturday to the annual exhibit given by New York City's Japanese Art Dealers Association (JADA) at the Ukrainian Center on Fifth Avenue.  Although the show took up only three galleries, it was an excellent opportunity to view masterworks of Japanese art in a tastefully arranged setting.

A good portion of the exhibit was given over to the display of ceramics and lacquerware.  Of the former, one of the more interesting pieces was not actually Japanese at all but rather an import from seventeenth century China.  Shaped in the form of a pouch, this hanging flower vase was an example of kosometsuke, a type of porcelain with cobalt blue underglaze that was manufactured in the town of Jingdezhen specifically for a Japanese market.  Also known as tenkei for the late Ming dynasty Emperor Tanqi, kosometsuke was fired in unofficial kilns as government regulation broke down in the unsettled times preceding the fall of the Ming to the Manchu conquerors of the successor Qing dynasty.  Perhaps due to the lack of government oversight as well as the fact that it was intended for export, kosometsuke was atypical of Chinese ceramics in its homely informality, an attribute that makes it much more accessible to the modern viewer.  

Of the lacquerware, the piece I found most intriguing was a fan shaped stacked box from the Meiji era.  Consisting of black and gold lacquer on a wood base with gold and silver trimming, the box was all the more elegant for the simplicity of its design.  

For me, the most interesting objects at the exhibit were the paintings, including several on large folding screens.  Certainly the most arresting of these artworks was The Fury of Priest Raigō (c. 1875-1885) by Kobayashi Kiyochika, a ukiyo-e artist who normally specialized in works that depicted the ever increasing Westernization of Japan.  In this hanging scroll done in ink and color on silk, however, he painted a scene from a classic legend of the Heian period in which a proud monk became enraged when the Emperor Shirakawa refused to grant a request; the monk then unleashed a terrible curse upon the unfortunate ruler.  Kiyochika's fellow Meiji ukiyo-e artist Yoshitoshi also illustrated this same tale in an 1891 woodblock print but chose to show the curse itself in the form of an army of rats, led by Raigō in semi-human form, infesting Mii Temple and devouring its prized collection of sacred scrolls.  In contrast, Kiyochika chose to depict the dramatic moment Raigō uttered his fateful curse.  The viewer's attention is captured as much by the flowing strokes that make up the painting as by the terrifying expression worn by the nearly deranged monk.

There were two other paintings I thought worth special mention.  The first was The Illustrated Life of Shinran (1699), the Heian era monk who founded the Jōdo Shinshū school of Pure Land Buddhsim, by an unknown Edo artist in the form of four large hanging scrolls.  This was an intricate and highly detailed work that illustrated one after the other all the major episodes of Shinran's life.  The second painting was a huge hanging scroll by Mochizuki Gyokkei entitled Sparrows and Waterfall (1851).  In this work, the monochromatic grey rendering of the water falling at the base of the falls contrasted strongly with the bright coloring of the birds flying before it.

Several large folding screens dominated the walls of one gallery.  Scattered Fans by an unknown Edo artist was a delightful rendering of handheld fans thrown randomly against a black background.  Bright gold fans mixed easily with those that seemed to reproduce scenes from antique monochromatic Chinese paintings.  Another screen was much more modern in design but just as compelling.  This was Hokuetsu no ama ("Divers of Hokuetsu") painted in 1940 by Shinsui Tanaka.  It was described in a mailing from the Erik Thomsen Gallery as "an over-sized folding screen measuring over seven feet in height, depicting a group of hardy female free-divers on Japan's northwestern coast, the monumental, life-size composition emphasizing the women's famous toughness and independent spirit."  The colorful modern rendering was quite striking when applied to the traditional folding screen format.

Unfortunately, the exhibit only lasts three days and is scheduled to close today, March 13, 2017.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff Performs Schubert

Yesterday evening, before the bad weather arrived, I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear the great pianist András Schiff perform a program that consisted entirely of works by Schubert, the tragic genius who was perhaps an even greater composer for the piano than Beethoven himself.

The recital began with the Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 845 (1825).  The work is considered the composer's first "mature" sonata and the first of three to be published during his lifetime.  (He is credited with 21 in all, though several were never completed and exist only in fragmentary form.)  Evidence of Schubert's increasing confidence in his abilities can be found in the dedication to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven's most important patron, and in the title given the published edition of Premiere Grande Sonate.  It's also apparent in the boldness of the first movement where Schubert combines development and recapitulation to the extent that one is not sure where the one leaves off and the other begins.  Schubert himself was particularly proud of the second movement whose theme and variations are among the best he wrote.  The movement is in C major but often drifts into a minor key as though thoughts of mortality were never far from Schubert's mind.  An Irish pianist named Fiachra Garvey has in fact noted a connection between this sonata and a lied composed at roughly the same time:
"Schubert’s D842 “Totengabers Heimwehe” (Gravediggers Longing) shares thematic material with the D845 sonata. The initial unison theme at the beginning of the sonata is used in the song accompanied by the words 'Abandoned by all, cousin only to death, I wait at the brink, starring longingly into the grave'."
The sonata was followed by a series of shorter works - the Four Impromptus, D. 935 (1827).  This is the second of two sets that Schubert composed and, unlike the the first set D. 899, was published posthumously.  Although many musicologists and critics, including Schumann, have seen these pieces as part of a whole, a "sonata in disguise," this misses the point.  Schubert was here trying to break away from Classical modes to better accommodate his Romantic tendencies.  The point of the Impromptus is precisely that they were not a sonata but a new type of musical form that sought to capture a fleeting emotional content that could not easily be expressed in the traditional multi-movement sonata.  In that sense, the Impromptus - for whose initial conception Schubert may have been indebted to his friend the Czech composer Jan Václav Voříšek - look forward to the works of Chopin and Liszt.  Schubert's works are invariably compared - usually to his detriment - to those of Beethoven; but in actuality, had he lived longer, Schubert might have become one of music's great innovators and taken his listeners in an entirely new direction from that of his Classical predecessors.  These late piano pieces are an indication of what might have been.

The Impromptus were followed by the Klavierstücke, D. 946 (1828).  These three short pieces are a continuation of the shorter musical forms Schubert had explored the year before in the Impromptus and can perhaps best be seen as a further development of his desire to express his ideas in a more concentrated and more lyrical manner.  It's worth noting that it was Brahms who edited these pieces prior to their publication in 1868.  Some twenty-five years later, at the end of his career, Brahms published his own Klavierstücke, Op. 118, and one wonders if Schubert's pieces had any influence, if only in their concept, on the composition of Brahms's own six short works for piano.

After intermission, the program concluded with the Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894 (1826).  This was the last of the three sonatas to be published during the composer's lifetime, albeit as four separate pieces, the first of which was titled Fantasie, rather than as a whole.  Among Schubert's late works, the sonata stands out for its serene mood.  At the time it was written, Schubert had less than two years of life; nevertheless, he doesn't allow intimations of his mortality to intrude but instead keeps them firmly in check and one has the impression he is deliberately trying to keep them out of his thoughts.   Instead, the work has the reflective autumnal quality a much older composer might assume when looking back over what he has accomplished.  Perhaps for this reason, the piece is one of Schubert's most popular and it may have been this quality that led Schumann to famously term it  "most perfect in form and conception" of all the sonatas.  Certainly, it was a good choice with which to end this program.  We last glimpse Schubert at peace and, rather than raging against his fate as Beethoven had, quietly accepting the end he knew could not be far off.  This is the way one would like best to remember this gentle sad man whose life was cut short before those about him could fully comprehend his genius.

Though known more for his performances of Bach, András Schiff is one of the foremost interpreters of Schubert's work.  I attended last season a recital in which the pianist performed the final sonatas of the four great Classical composers, and found his rendition of Schubert's Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960 the highlight of the evening.  At yesterday evening's extremely long recital, he kept the audience's attention riveted on the nearly empty stage where he sat quietly at the piano and played through the works without any great fanfare or ostentation.  Surprisingly, the recital was not sold out.  Almost the entire rear balcony was empty.  The audience who did attend, however, were extremely enthusiastic and appreciative.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Tchaikovsky and Bartók

On Tuesday evening, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, perform ballet music by Tchaikovsky followed by a concert rendition of Bartók's only opera, Bluebeard's Castle.  As Nézet-Séguin will next season be taking over as Music Director of the Met Opera, I was naturally quite interested in hearing how he would approach the latter work.  Previously, I had seen him conduct Verdi's Otello at the Met in 2015 and had thought he had made an excellent job of it.

The program opened with selections from Tchaikovsky's best known work, the ballet Swan Lake.  There must be some connection between Tchaikovsky and Bartók that I'm missing because the last time I heard Bluebeard's Castle (conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Met in 2015) it was also paired with a work by Tchaikovsky, on that occasion the one-act opera Iolanta.  On the surface, Tchaikovsky's late Russian Romanticism has little in common with Bartók's uncompromising modernism.  Instead, the two composers' works present a stark contrast to one another.

Swan Lake's convoluted early history is provided in detail in the Wikipedia article linked to above, but it's worth noting that there appeared over the years several alternative endings to the well known story.  In 1987, I witnessed an interpretation by the Paris Opera Ballet that was without doubt the finest ballet performance I've ever attended.  In this version, in which Sylvie Guillem danced Odette/Odile and Rudolf Nureyev took on the role of Rothbart, only Siegfried died at the end.  Once he was gone, Rothbart, held aloft by wires, swooped down, lifted the recumbent form of Odette, and carried her off.

After intermission, the orchestra - now joined by soloists Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano, and John Relyea, Bass - returned to the stage to perform Bluebeard's Castle.  This was really the work I had been most interested in hearing.  In contrast to the Tchaikovsky, it is a thoroughly modern piece whose intensity owes as much to the psychological depth of its libretto as it does to Bartók's fascinating score.  The Prologue makes this clear when it asks: "Where is the stage: outside or within, Ladies and Gentlemen?"  As Judith moves from one locked room to the next, the listener understands her horror as she penetrates ever deeper into Bluebeard's subconscious and forces him to reveal to her his innermost secrets.  The use of only two characters heightens the drama and at times creates an almost unbearable sensation of claustrophobia.  The audience begins to feel that they too are confined with a protagonist who may very well be a sadistic madman.  Even if the sinister overtones of sex and violence are never made explicit - the work was, after all, written in 1912 - they still lurk in the shadows and contribute to Judith's growing trepidation.  All the while, Bartók's music enhances the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding.  This is particularly apparent in the use of the minor second whenever there is any mention of blood.

The libretto, based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, was written by Béla Balázs, a friend of both Bartók and Kodály.  Significantly, Balázs based the verses in his libretto on Hungarian folk ballads, a form already of deep interest to Bartók from his ethnological research, and this is no doubt one reason the composer was attracted to the project in the first place.  The references to folk music do not, however, account for the symbolism of the different colored lights each time the door to a new room is opened (with the exception of the sixth), and I've never been able to find a satisfactory explanation for it.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has always been one of America's finest ensembles and I've very much enjoyed hearing their music over the years.  The lush sound of the string section was particularly notable in the Tchaikovsky.

Monday, March 6, 2017

WQXR Webcast: Schubert and Brahms

This winter, on the first Wednesday of every month, New York City's classical music station WQXR has been webcasting recitals given by top-level Juilliard students performing live at the station's downtown studio, the Greene Space.  These recitals are almost always sold out but WQXR graciously keeps webcasts of the events archived on its site so that they can be watched at the viewer's convenience.  This month's edition features two South Korean musicians, cellist James Jeonghwan Kim and pianist Jinhee Park, performing works by Schubert and Brahms.

The program opened with Schubert's Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D 821 (1824).  What becomes of a masterpiece written for an instrument that no longer exists?  That's the question for musicians wishing to play Schubert's sonata for arpeggione, a strange hybrid of guitar and cello that went out of fashion within a few years of its creation.  Its idiosyncratic inventor, Johann Georg Stauffer, was a prominent craftsman of guitars in early nineteenth century Vienna, but he eventually went bankrupt after having neglected his business to instead concentrate on his musical inventions, all of which have since disappeared.  The sonata has since been transcribed for any number of instruments, most usually cello or viola, though I own a wonderful recording for clarinet performed by Richard Stoltzman.  Written at roughly the same time as the composer's String Quartet No. 14, the sonata was composed during one of the worst periods of Schubert's short life when not only was his health fast declining but his latest attempt at opera, Fierabras, had proven a dismal failure.  It was about this time that he wrote despairingly:
"Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy."
There is, however, little trace of these troubles in the sonata.  The opening melody, in particular, is one of the most tuneful Schubert ever composed.  Only in the heartbreaking second movement adagio does the composer turn inward to reflect on the misery of his current situation.  One hears here the voice of a man in torment.

The second and final work was Brahms's Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 (1886).  What first strikes one when listening to this piece is how youthful it sounds.  This even though Brahms was age 53 when he composed it and had already put behind him his fourth and final symphony.  That the sonata adheres to the spirit of Romanticism is at once apparent in the score - the second movement adagio is marked affetuoso and the scherzo passionato.  These are not the directions generally found in the works of an older composer.  And the turbulent opening passages of the first movement make it clear that Brahms will not allow the work's emotional content to be held in check.  The second movement in F-sharp minor seems at first more restrained as the cello accompanies the piano pizzicato while the former introduces the first theme, but from there the music grows ever more impassioned.  The work's only flaw is the brief final movement that sounds much too bright and perfunctory to be taken seriously.

Both musicians gave standout performances and James Kim also displayed a likable sense of humor in his remarks to the audience.  

Click here to go to WQXR's page describing the event.  There's another link toward the bottom of the page there that will allow you to view the webcast.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Andris Nelsons Conducts Schuller, Mozart and Beethoven #3

On Wednesday evening, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by its young Music Director Andris Nelsons, conduct works by Gunther Schuller, Mozart and Beethoven.  It was an unusually long concert that ran over two and a half hours but was so well executed that the time passed quickly.

The program opened with with Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959).  Schuller, who only passed away in 2015, was a polymath equally at home with both jazz and classical music.  Few recipients of the MacArthur "genius" award have deserved the honor as much as he.  Not only a noted composer, author and historian, he was also an incredibly talented horn player who worked and recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis.  In 1959, he left his position as hornist at the Met Opera Orchestra to become a composer of what he termed "third-stream" music, an attempt to incorporate elements of both jazz and classical music within a single piece.  Seven Studies is the best known of the works he wrote in this style.  In it Schuller sought to find musical equivalents to seven visual works created by Paul Klee who was himself, of course, an extremely talented musician.  As Schuller wrote:
"Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems.  Some relate to the actual design, shape, or color scheme of the painting, while others take the general mode of the picture or its title as a point of departure."
The entire piece presented a kaleidoscope of shifting sounds and impressions from one study to the next.  Those that were most successful were the movements in which the jazz rhythms could most clearly be discerned.

It was appropriate that a work by Schuller should be chosen to open a Boston Symphony program in view of his long association with the orchestra.  As the program notes pointed out: "He [Schuller] was a tireless educator, serving as faculty member, co-director, and director of the Tanglewood Music Center over a 20-year span..."  In addition, he had received several commissions from the BSO including Where the Word Ends, the orchestra's 125th anniversary commission premiered by James Levine in 2009, and Magical Trumpets, the Tanglewood Music Center's 75th anniversary commission that premiered posthumously in 2015.

The next work was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K. 482 (1785) and featured Emanuel Ax as soloist.  At the time he wrote the concerto, Mozart had only just passed the peak of his popularity in Vienna (the number of subscriptions at his 1785 Advent series, at which the K. 482 was performed, was 120 as opposed to 150 at that year's earlier Lenten series) and his work was still extraordinarily in demand even if he were beginning to experience the pressure on his finances that would haunt his final years.  Among other projects, Mozart was already collaborating with Da Ponte on Figaro.  So busy was he, in fact, that he did not have time to fully write out the concerto's piano part nor the cadenzas.  There can't be any question that he meant to dazzle his audiences with the present work - this is one of those concerti that include percussion and brass in the instrumentation - just as he had earlier that same year in the K. 466 and K. 467 concerti.  Hence the first use of clarinets in a Mozart concerto.  And there are other elements spread throughout the work deliberately designed to make it more appealing, such as in the final movement where a 3/4 menuetto suddenly interrupts the much faster 6/8 rondo theme (an idea the composer had previously used in his first E-flat concerto, K. 271). But where Mozart really let himself go was in the composition of the second movement andante.  Again echoing the K. 271, it is in the key of C minor, and the use of a minor key in Mozart's music is almost always a signal of overwhelming emotion, here emphasized by the muted violins.  There are also variations in both minor and major keys on the movement's opening theme; above all there is a sense of operatic drama in the interplay between piano and orchestra.  So affected were the concerto's first listeners that they demanded an encore of the entire movement.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the most anticipated work of the evening, Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (1804), the immortal Eroica.  So familiar has this work become that it's difficult for us in the twenty-first century to imagine how revolutionary it must have sounded to its first audiences, and not only for its length, unprecedented in any previous symphony.  This, the first explicit statement of Romanticism in a major musical work, turned the Haydnesque Classical symphony on its head.  Here for the first time listeners encountered programmatic content in a symphonic work as Beethoven, with all the dramatic power at his command, detailed one man's struggle against fate.  This can be seen most clearly in the second movement marcia funebre that can be viewed as much as anything else as a funeral dirge for the old Beethoven, the Classical composer who had been struck down by deafness and now no longer existed.  The contretemps over the effaced dedication to Napoleon sometimes distracts from how deeply personal a work this really is.  In many ways I believe that Beethoven had identified himself with Napoleon to a much more profound degree than he himself realized and had seen in him the embodiment of the Aufklärung ideals he had absorbed in his youth in Bonn.  Once Napoleon had fallen from his pedestal, at the least in the composer's eyes, he was more than ever alone.  It was he, once he had defiantly conquered his affliction, who would continue on the path the dictator had forsaken and would go on in his Ninth Symphony to affirm the same "rights of man" he now feared Napoleon would trample.

As usual, Andris Nelsons did a superb job on the podium.  I've come to consider him the best of the younger generation of conductors and was more impressed than ever after having witnessed this performance.  Under his direction, the BSO has once again become a world class ensemble whose concerts are a highlight of any Carnegie Hall season.  I was especially impressed at this concert by Nelsons's handling of the Schuller piece; he demonstrated conclusively the work's power and importance as it swung from jazz to classical and back again.  And Emanuel Ax, though he's never been one of my favorite pianists, turned in a solid performance on the Mozart concerto.  That composer's concerti are so often played nowadays, and deservedly so, that there's invariably a danger the audience will not pay as close attention as the music deserves.  But Ax, Nelsons and the BSO managed to keep the K. 482 as fresh as if it were being performed for the first time.  All concerned did an especially fine job on the andante and I could well understand why its first audience had demanded its encore.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Vienna Philharmonic Performs Schoenberg and Schubert #9

After just having heard on Saturday evening a live WQXR broadcast from Carnegie Hall that featured the Vienna Philharmonic performing, among other works, Schubert's Eighth Symphony, I went to the Hall on Sunday afternoon to hear the same ensemble give another concert, once again under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst.  On this occasion, the orchestra paired a work from the very end of Romanticism with one from that movement's earliest beginnings.

The program opened with a relatively short work, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4, ("Transfigured Night") originally composed in 1899 for string sextet; it was subsequently arranged by the composer for chamber orchestra in 1917 and then revised in 1943.  This is the composer's most accessible and therefore best known work, a favorite of those audiences who find his later twelve tone technique too difficult to appreciate.  And this short tone poem, based on verses by Richard Dehmel, is in fact a haunting and evocative piece that is quite affecting to hear.  In it, Schoenberg fairly well exhausted whatever possibilities Romanticism still had left to offer, and in that sense it can be viewed as a turning point in modern music.  The composer himself saw in it, at least for himself, the resolution of the conflict between the absolute music of Brahms and programmatic works of Wagner.  In a letter to Dehmel he wrote:
"For your poems have had a decisive influence on my development as a composer. They were what first made me try to find a new tone in the lyrical mood. Or rather, I found it even without looking, simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me."  
It is difficult today to comprehend how controversial the chamber version of this work must have sounded to its Viennese audience at its premiere in 1902, both for Dehmel's then explicit references to sexuality as well as for Schoenberg's own infamous use of the "nonexistent" inverted ninth chord.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to perform the second and final work on the program, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944 (1825-1826), justifiably known as the "Great," in part to distinguish it from the composer's Symphony No. 6 in the same key and in part to acknowledge its own magnificence.  Perhaps there exists no more poignant testament to the relative anonymity in which Schubert lived his life than the confusion surrounding the numbering and dating of his symphonies.  Unpublished during his lifetime and even for several decades thereafter, the symphonies' chronologies had to be painstakingly reconstructed after the composer's death, thus making it seem he had lived in antiquity rather than in the nineteenth century.  What a contrast to the situation of Beethoven whose works were published and assigned opus numbers almost as soon as he had written them.   It's now generally accepted that this work is the missing Gmunden-Gastein symphony  from 1824 and that it should therefore more correctly be listed as the No.8.  The D. 944 might, in fact, never have come down to us at all if Schumann, during a visit to Vienna, had not fortuitously paid a visit to Schubert's brother Ferdinand who had kept the manuscripts in safekeeping and had even arranged for a performance of the symphony's last movement.  Fortunately, Schumann was as perspicacious a critic as one could hope to find in 1830's Germany.  Immediately recognizing the symphony's importance, he sent a copy of the manuscript to Mendelssohn who successfully premiered the work with the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1839.  But even then the work was misunderstood by audiences and musicians alike.  The audiences found it far too long and the musicians, most notably in London, thought it unplayable.  It was only in the twentieth century, after Mahler and others had redefined the entire concept of the symphony, that the work finally achieved the popularity it had deserved all along.

One of the paradoxes of the No. 9 is that although the work is as carefully constructed as any of Beethoven's and scrupulously follows the traditional structure of the Classical symphony in that all four movements are in sonata form, it often strikes the listener as a much more personal statement than the works of Schubert's predecessors, one in which melody is given greater weight than thematic development.  The orchestration also differs in the importance given to the brass section.  This is the first major symphony to make use of trombones as a standard part of the instrumentation rather than merely as a means of adding emphasis.  The writing for the horns especially stands out - the symphony opens with a solo by that instrument - so much so that it's difficult to describe its effect without resorting to the rapturous effusions of Schumann who wrote:
"A horn is heard from a distance.  It seems to come from another sphere. Here everything listens, as if a heavenly spirit were wandering through the orchestra."
In short, the work really is, as Schumann again pointed out, the first true Romantic symphony.  Listening to it, it's difficult at times to believe it was actually written during Beethoven's lifetime.  It seems to belong to another era altogether.

I enjoyed this concert much more than the one that had been broadcast the evening before.  The Schubert, in particular, was well executed and succeeded in conveying to the audience the work's full splendor.