Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Beethoven and Dvořák

Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players gave the last of their three summertime recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  The program was appropriately lighthearted, in keeping with the season, and featured works by Beethoven and Dvořák which, while not among these two composers' best known pieces, were still highly significant chamber works in their own right and extremely enjoyable to hear.

The program opened with Beethoven's Six Ländler, WoO15 (1802).  As the date of composition would indicate, these short German dances were written at the very end of the composer's early period at about the same time he completed his Second Symphony.  And these dances do share several common features with the symphony,  most notably their use of D major (actually D minor for the fourth dance) as the home key.  Their lively festive character is, however, quite different from that of the symphony.  The occasion for which they were written was the annual winter dance at Vienna's Hofburg Palace.  This was a major social event in the capital's music season,  and in fact several hundred balls are still held annually in Vienna at this time of year.  This would, though, be the last time Beethoven would take part in the celebrations.  For one thing, he had successfully established himself as a composer to such an extent that he had no need to further embellish his reputation on such public occasions.  More importantly, such lightweight pieces no longer held any interest for Beethoven as, tortured by advancing deafness, he moved inexorably toward the great works of his middle period.  In spite of this, the dances are very accomplished examples of their genre and the Viennese revelers must have found them quite pleasing.  The very fact that the composer took the trouble to later transcribe them for piano shows that he held them in fairly high esteem even if he did not deem them worthy of being assigned an opus number.

The next work was an arrangement by Wenzel Matiegka of Beethoven's Serenade in D major, Op. 8 (1795-1797).  While the original work was scored for violin, viola and cello, it was here rearranged for the unusual combination of violin, viola and guitar.  By the time he wrote this work, Beethoven had already approached the string trio form in his Op. 3 in E-flat and would return to it immediately after in the three works that comprise his Op. 9.  Even more importantly, he had made the acquaintance of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose ensembles would go on to premiere the great quartets of the late period; and the presence of so accomplished a musician may have been one factor that led Beethoven to experiment with the string trio form in the first place.  It's interesting to note that even at this early point Beethoven, who began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra, was comfortable expressing his musical ideas for strings alone.  That's not to say, though, that the Op. 8 is in any sense a profound work.  It's actually a relaxed divertimento of the type routinely performed at Vienna's myriad social events, although the particular occasion for which this serenade was composed is not known.  As guitartist Jordan Dobson noted before beginning the piece, Matiegka's transcription of this work involved much more than a simple transcription of the cello part.  At some points the guitar, which has inherently a much softer sound than that of its companions, would, simply in order to make itself better heard, take over parts originally intended for the violin and viola, leaving those instruments to sit silent.  The result was pleasing enough, especially for so carefree a piece of music as this, but in general I much prefer to hear works in the arrangements for which they were originally scored.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875), known as the "Double Bass" for its distinctive instrumentation in which a bass was added to the traditional string quartet in order to achieve a more pronounced sonority in the lower register.  Despite its deceptively high opus number (it was originally published as the Op. 18), the quintet is a relatively early work composed before Dvořák had come to the attention of Brahms and Hanslick in 1877 and then launched on an international career.  Originally written as a submission to a local competition, which it easily won, the piece went unperformed for a number of years until Dvořák, whose work was by then highly popular, finally sent it to his publisher Simrock.  As such, the quintet provides an excellent demonstration of the composer's early style as he moved away from the influence of Wagner's music and found his own voice.  Considering how early in Dvořák's career it was written, it's a remarkably cohesive work and one that deserves a more prominent place in the chamber repertoire.  The present performance was notable for its inclusion of the slow intemezzo movement that Dvořák had originally removed from fear the work would be too long and later adapted as his Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.

As is always the case with this ensemble, the the level  of musicianship was superb throughout the recital.   The playing of guest violinist Danbi Um was particularly noteworthy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Met Museum: Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings

After having seen the Irving Penn Centennial several weeks ago at the Met Museum, I climbed the stairs to the second floor for a glimpse of Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings.  They were well worth a trip to the museum all by themselves.

No matter how tumultuous and scnadalous Carvaggio's life my have been, or perhaps because of it, he was a visionary in his approach to painting, and the two large works - The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and The Denial of St. Peter - now on view are among his greatest achievements.  Looking at them, it's hard to believe they were created in the early seventeenth century, an era still dominated by the stiff and lifeless forms of the Mannerist school.  Although these paintings are credited with inspiring the greatest artists of the Baroque, most notably Rembrandt, they actually look far more modern than even those.  There is a theatricality in the lighting that is so advanced it reminds one more of twentieth century cinema than of centuries-old European art.  The characters who emerge only partially from the shadows come alive to the viewer as individuals and so transcend the Biblical figures they are meant to represent.  Even today the naturalism displayed in these paintings is almost shocking when compared to the academic style displayed in most other works of the period.  One can only wonder what Carvaggio's contemporaries made of them.  Certainly they were like nothing that had ever been seen before in European painting.  If one wishes to trace the development of modernism in Western art, this is where one must begin.

The exhibit continues through July 9, 2017.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

It's difficult to believe now, so completely has she been forgotten,  that at the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Käsebier was one of America's most successful and best known photographers.  So important did Stieglitz consider her work that he dedicated the first issue of Camera Work to displaying her photographs rather than those of his disciple Steichen.

Käsebier was lucky enough to have been born into a family of moderate wealth and then married, however unhappily, to a successful businessman.  As a result, she did not have to worry about earning enough money to pay the rent.  In fact, Käsebier was already age 36 and her children nearly grown when she first took up the study of photography.  While it's true that her social standing enabled her to secure many wealthy clients for her lucrative portrait business, Käsebier was a strong minded business woman who worked hard to make herself a success.  She also had enough foresight to ally herself with Stieglitz when he first began to seriously promote photography as an art form and she thus became a charter member of the Photo Secession.

If Käsebier is passed over today, it's most likely because so much of her oeuvre was given over to the celebration of motherhood and children.  Ironically, those photographs that first established her reputation, such as Blessed Art Thou and The Manger (both from 1899), are the same that now cause her to be rejected on the grounds that her work is too cloyingly sentimental to be worthy of serious consideration.  Actually, shortly after it was created, a print of The Manger sold for $100, at the time the highest price ever paid for a photographic work.  In contrast, the photograph for which Käsebier is best remembered today is her sensual portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, reproduced on this book's cover, whose cocaine addled husband gained notoriety when on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden he sensationally murdered the showgirl's former lover, the playboy architect Stanford White, who was also Käsebier's friend and patron.

The other reason Käsebier is given so little attention today is that her photographic style was unabashedly "pictorialist."  This term has been given a pejorative connotation since at least the 1930's when Ansel Adams and other members of the f64 Group began to relentlessly promote "straight" photography at the expense of all other forms of photographic representation.  Their closed minded insistence on their sharp and straightforward style as the only viable approach to the medium did incalculable harm to mid-twentieth century photography.  Käsebier was, on the other hand, the pictorialist photographer par excellence.  She had no hesitation at all in painting in backgrounds or details on her prints or in using alternative printing methods such as platinum and gum bichromate.  Although some pictorialists no doubt did go too far in their image manipulations, by and large they created works of incredible beauty that were far more imaginative than the literal, matter-of-fact reproductions of reality favored by the f64 Group.

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs, is a highly sympathetic biography written by Barbara L. Michaels.  It is a short work, really not more than an extended essay, that would have benefited greatly from more detail regarding Käsebier's associations with some of the greatest artists of her time.  These included not only Stieglitz and Steichen, but also such seminal photographers as Alvin Langdon Coburn (who once worked as Käsebier's assistant), F. Holland Day, Clarence White and Baron de Meyer as well as leading painters and sculptors in both Europe and America, most notably Auguste Rodin whom Käsebier photographed extensively at his home near Paris.  The book, published by Abrams, is handsomely designed and filled with excellent reproductions of Käsebier's black & white photographs, including all her most famous works as well as many with which I had previously been unfamiliar.