Thursday, September 28, 2017

Juilliard: Bachauer Award Recital

On Tuesday evening I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the Gina Bachauer Award Recital.  Featured were the two Juilliard pianists who had won this year's annual competition - Chaeyoung Park, a BM candidate, and Yun-chin Zhou, an MM candidate.  Both are students of Robert McDonald.  Together they gave a one-hour performance of works by Bach/Siloti, Bartók, Liszt and William Bolcom, none of which had previously been familiar to me.

The program, hosted by WQXR's Bob Sherman, began with Chaeyoung Park performing J.S. Bach's Prelude in B Minor as arranged by Alexander Siloti.  The source for this brief work was actually the composer's Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855a, an early version of that found in The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I (1722).  Siloti, a student of Liszt and a cousin of Rachmaninoff, was himself a major musician and conductor in pre-Revolutionary Russia to whom Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky all dedicated works.  In 1918, no doubt seeing the writing on the wall, Siloti fled his homeland, even after having been named Intendant of the Mariinsky Theater, and ended up as a teacher at Juilliard.  He was known for the excellence of his transcriptions, and the present piece is generally considered to be the finest of these.  In it, he lowered the key by an ocatve, reversed the roles of each hand, and included a repeat of the entire work that contained within it a "hidden" melody for the left hand.  These changes completely altered the character of Bach's prelude to bring it within the tradition of Russian Romanticism.  It was an splendid choice with which to begin the recital.

The next piece was Bartók's Out of Doors, Sz. 81 (1926), for me the highlight of the entire recital.  Unusually for the composer, each of the piece's five movements was assigned a title.  Of these, the first, "With Drums and Pipes," was based on a traditional Hungarian folk song.  Bartók, in the company of Kodály, had spent years at the turn of the twentieth century recording Hungarian and Romanian folk music and in so doing had become one of the world's first ethnomusicologists. Bartók's researches formed the basis of his own modernist music, and this passage was an excellent example of his process of assimiliation.  The work's most interesting movement, though, was unquestionably the fourth, "The Night's Music."  Bartók often played this separately from the other movements and at one time had intended to record it.  The composer's night music was one of the most distinctive of his musical innovations.  He used the term to describe slow passages in which he sought to portray the sounds of nature at night, albeit in an unconventional manner that could sometimes be unnerving, as in The Miraculous Mandarin completed only a few years before Out of Doors.  In this piece it had indeed an unsettling effect, and yet at the same time it possessed a mesmerizing quality that held the audience transfixed.

Yun-chin Zhou then took the stage to perform Liszt's Réminiscences de Norma, S.394 (1841).  The composer was famous for his transcriptions of operatic masterpieces, particularly those of Wagner, and here he chose one of Bellini's most successful works.  This was not  a transcription in the technical sense, however, as much as it was a reimagining of the entire opera achieved by recasting seven of its themes for piano in a thoroughly Romantic manner, a technique Liszt also employed in his Réminiscences de Don Juan completed the same year.  As with most of Liszt's works for piano, the Réminiscences de Norma was intended to challenge the virtuosity of even the most experienced pianists.  To my mind, though, it did not have the depth of Liszt's transcriptions of Wagner no matter how brilliant its sound.

The progam concluded with both musicians returning to the stage to play together the first and last movements of Bolcom's Recuerdos for Two Pianos (1991), a work originally commissioned for a 1991 two-piano competition.  Bolcom is an extremely eclectic composer, forever reinterpreting his sources in his own idiom much the same as Bartók did when absorbing his homeland's folk music.  Recuerdos consisted of three movements, each of them inspired by a different composer - Ernesto Nazareth, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ramón Delgado Palacios - whose singular styles provided stepping off points for Bolcom's invention.  Chôro was a dance piece deeply influenced by Nazareth's Brazilian tangos but at the same time interwoven with American ragtime.  It provided a marked contrast to Palacios's eighteenth century Valse Venezolano.  With its strong Latin flavoring, the piece bore little resemblance to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss.  The music of both these South American composers provided a solid base for Bolcom to build upon.  His music has invariably been highly accessible and enjoyable and here overflowed with rhythm and energy.

The Bachauer Award Recital has always been the occasion I mark as the beginning of the classical music season.  Hearing the performances of two such fine pianists as Chaeyoung Park and Yun-chin Zhou helped me once again realize the importance classical music holds in my life.

Tuesday's recital will be broadcast on WQXR's Young Artists Showcase on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 9:00 p.m. and should be archived on the station's website for some time thereafter.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Met Museum: Gilded Age Drawings

Tucked away in the Met Museum's American Wing is an excellent show of drawings from the Gilded Age, a period that stretched roughly from the close of the Civil War to the 1890's when the country entered the Progressive Age and the United States took its place among the world powers.  One cannot help experiencing a sense of nostalgia in viewing these works from a supposedly simpler time in our nation's history.

It should be noted at the outset that many of the works on view are generic landscapes and studies that, while decorative, are of little artistic interest.  There are, however, enough works by major nineteenth century artists to more than compensate for these.

No artist is so well represented at this exhibit as Thomas Eakins who could well be considered the father of American Realism.  Several of his most important works are on display.  First and foremost is the iconic 1877 The Dancing Lesson, the only work from the exhibit to be featured on the museum's website.  The watercolor depicts three figures - a seated banjo player, a child first learning to dance, and a third male figure who stands watching the child.  Significantly, all three are Afro-Americans whose depiction in artworks, other than as racial stereotypes, even in the late nineteenth century was still extremely controversial.  Other watercolors by Eakins include The Pathetic Song (1881), John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873), and Young Girl Meditating, also known as Fifty Years Ago (1877).  By far the most interesting piece, however, is the monochromatic rendering in India ink of Eakins's most famous painting, The Gross Clinic (1875).  The huge (8' x 6.5') oil on canvas was rejected by Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition because it showed in photorealistic detail an actual surgical operation in progress.  The content was deemed unseemly and the painting consigned to, or more properly hidden in, an army hospital where none but the staff could view it.  Eakins, understandably upset, wanted to ensure that his work was not lost altogether and so made the drawing for purposes of accurate reproduction in print form.

Other major artists shown at the exhibit include James McNeill Whistler (Lady in Gray, watercolor and gouache, 1883), Winslow Homer (Inside the Bar, watercolor, 1883 and Boys in a Dory, watercolor and gouache with graphite underdrawing, 1873), and Louis Comfort Tiffany (Louise Tiffany Reading, pastel, 1888).  There are also on view two pieces by John Singer Sargent (In the Generalife, watercolor with wax crayon, 1912, and Two Soldiers at Arras, watercolor, 1917) even though both are twentieth century works executed long after the close of the Gilded Age.

For me, the most interesting part of the exhibit consisted of works by lesser known American artists.  Snow Scene (c. 1890-1900), a watercolor by Bruce Crane was a strikingly modern looking piece while The Green Cushion (c. 1895), a watercolor with gouache and graphite by Irving Ramsey Wiles, was in its languor the very epitome of the Gilded Age aesthetic.  One startling anachronism was New York from a Seaplane (1919), a pastel by Everett L. Warner.  By far the most intriguing works shown, though, were two watercolors with gouache by John La Farge - Nocturne (1885) and Strange Thing Little Kiosai saw in the River (1897).  The artist, a native of New York City and graduate of Fordham University, was not only a painter, but also a writer and a worker in stained glass.  A journey to Japan in 1886 in the company of Henry Adams had a lasting influence on his art that can clearly be seen in the above two works.  Nocturne is low key study of a flower seen at night that is shrouded in mystery.  Strange Thing is an even more explicit acknowledgement of the Japanese connection.  It is based on an episode in the life of the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyōsai who as a child found a head floating in the river, painted it, and then returned it to the river for "reburial."  La Farge's watercolor is a dream-like vision of the disembodied head floating in the river.  It's easily the best thing to be seen at the Met's current show.

The exhibit continues through December 10, 2017.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Gershwin, Stravinsky, Martinů, Poulenc, and Kapustin

After having attended the Jupiter Players' first recital of the season only last week, I went on Monday to hear the company's next performance, this one featuring twentieth century music by George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Bohuslav Martinů, Francis Poulenc, and Nikolaï Kapustin.  The program's title, Jazzing It Up, was highly appropriate considering the works performed, almost all of which blurred the line between jazz and progressive classical music.

The program opened with Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926).  Though Gershwin's original score was for solo piano, the version performed here was an arrangement by Charles Neidich for clarinet and piano.  The work refelcts Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer.  Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes.   Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three.  It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most interesting.  Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.”

The next work was Stravinsky's L’histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”) (1919) for for violin, clarinet, and piano.  The piece started as "a theatrical work 'to be read, played, and danced' (lue, jouée et dansée) by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments." The present suite, also from 1919, represents an abridgement not only of content but of instrumentation as well.  Although Stravinsky later claimed to have been influenced by jazz when composing the piece, it's doubtful that he had actually had an opportunity to hear any real jazz in post-World War I Europe.  His knowledge came instead from reading sheet music.  The piece is therefore more what Stravinsky thought jazz should sound like than what it actually did.  This gives the music an even more idiosyncratic character than it might otherwise have.

The first half of the program concluded with one of my favorite twentieth century chamber pieces, Martinů's delightful La revue de cuisine (1927) for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano.  The work was actually written as a ballet, one of three Martinů composed that year.  Even without the dancers, the suite that was adapted from the ballet is a witty sophisticated piece whose instrumenation allows it to mimic the sound of the great 1920's Paris jazz/ragtime bands.  The use of a clarinet is particularly effective in the Charleston segment.

After intermission, the musicians returned to perform Poulenc's incidental music for Jean Anouilh's 1940 stage play Léocadia.  When first staged in Paris, the play was a critical success but is now largely forgotten.  It was a actually a play within a play in which the protagonist's aunt sought to recreate the past (shades of Proust) for him in order to demonstrate its illusory quality when compared to real life.  For the premiere, Poulenc wrote one of his most famous songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, which he dedicated to the show's star Yvonne Printemps.  It was given an excellent cabaret-like rendition at this performance by ensemble member Gina Cuffari.

The final piece on the program was Kapustin's Piano Quintet, Op. 89 (1998).  The Russian composer, who's now in his 80's, has become increasingly popular over the past few years, especially among those with an interest in "third stream" music.  Kapustin does not quite fit the mould for this genre, however, since he deliberately eschews all forms of improvisation in his work.  As he himself put it:
"I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation–and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisation is written, of course, and they become much better; it improved them."
In spite of this, Kapustin spent a great deal of his career, most notably in the 1950's, as a pianist touring the Soviet Union with jazz bands.  As a composer, he has sought to implement the jazz idiom in classical forms such as the present quintet and has been remarkably successful in doing so.  As far as technique is concerned, one pianist, Leslie De'Ath, has commented that: "... everything Kapustin writes feels technically like an etude – such are the demands made upon the body and the intellect."  The composer is also a virtuoso pianist, though he no longer performs in public, and his music is a challenge to the abilities of any musician.

Though not so well attended as last week's recital, this was one of the company's most successful programs.  It was helped a great deal in this regard by the high caliber of the musicianship, both that of the ensemble players and the two guest artists, pianist Qi Kong and Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin, both of whom faced extraordinary technical difficulties in the material performed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Coming NYC Classical Music Season 2017-2018

It's almost time for the new classical music scene to begin in New York City.  After my summer respite, I'm very much looking forward to attending events at the Met Opera, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.  I'm fortunate enough to live within walking distance of these venues and do my best to take advantage of the wealth of resources so close at hand.  As the world outside New York City is increasingly overtaken by anti-intellectualism and xenophobia, it's more important than ever that we all do what we can to preserve our cultural heritage.

First, I'll be attending eight operas on my subscription to the Met.  The series begins with a performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte conducted by Music Director Emeritus James Levine.  To my mind, no other conductor has consistently demonstrated such a deep understanding of Mozart's genius as he.  Over the years, Maestro Levine has been my guide not only to the great Da Ponte operas but also to less frequently performed works.  In past seasons these included productions of Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Although he has stepped down from his position as Music Director, Maestro Levine will still be leading a number of performances this coming season and will be paying particular attention to Verdi's works, including the Requiem, Il Trovatore, and Luisa Miller, the last featuring the great Plácido Domingo in yet another of his autumnal baritone roles.  In addition to these masterpieces, I'll also be seeing two works by Massenet - Thaïs and Cendrillon.  I've always considered Massenet an underappreciated composer and so am greatly looking forward to hearing these.  Rounding out the season, I'll be also be attending performances of Cavaleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and Strauss's Elektra, the last conducted by the Met's new Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

At Carnegie Hall, the emphasis will be on orchestral performances.  Perhaps the most intriguing of these will come in March when Kirill Petrenko, the new Music Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker, will lead the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony and Brahms's Double Concerto.  Other noteworthy performances will include Zubin Mehta leading the Israel Philharmonic in Mahler's No. 3, Gustavo Dudamel conducting Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with the Vienna Philharmonic, Ricardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony in Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique, Andris Nelsons conducting Act II of Tristan with the Boston Symphony, and Daniil Trifonov at the piano with the Kremerata Baltica in an all-Chopin program.  I've also renewed my subscription to the Met Orchestra's three end of season performances, perhaps the most exciting of which will be the final evening when James Levine will lead Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate and Mahler's No. 4.  But not all the performances I'll attend at Carnegie Hall will be orchestral.  Later in the season, I'll also hear both Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff in solo piano recitals at Stern Auditorium.

I'll be hearing still more orchestral performances at David Geffen Hall as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series.  This is actually one of the best orchestral series available anywhere, but for some reason it doesn't receive the attention it deserves.  Not only will I hear Iván Fischer lead the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 and Gustavo Dudamel conduct Beethoven's No. 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I'll also see Simon Rattle, in his New York debut as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, conduct two concerts devoted entirely to Mahler's music.  In the first he'll lead the orchestra in the composer's Symphony No. 9 and in the second Das Lied von der Erde.

In addition to all these, I also hope to attend any number of chamber music recitals given by the Jupiter Players and the immensely talented musicians at the Juilliard School.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Liebermann, Pärt and Brahms

On Monday afternoon, I went to hear the Jupiter Players' first chamber music recital of the season at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 65th Street.  As this was 9/11 and a day of remembrance in New York City, the theme of the recital was Homage.  The performance featured works appropriate to the occasion by Lowell Liebermann, Arvo Pärt and Brahms and included no less than two adaptations of the music of J.S. Bach.

The program opened with Liebermann's Fantasy on a Fugue of J. S. Bach (1989) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano.  The work is based on Fugue 24 in B minor from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893, Vol. 1 (1722).  With the winds playing so prominent a part, the Fantasy has much the character of a serenade and, like a great deal of Liebermann's oeuvre, a definite neo-Romantic flavor.  I had only just heard in recital a week earlier the same composer's Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 28, written the same year as the Fantasy, and it was intriguing to compare how differently Liebermann approached each piece.  The Fantasy was a much more restrained work and was at times almost plaintive in character.

The next work was Pärt's Fratres (“Brothers”) (1977).  One of Pärt's best known works, Fratres was composed without fixed instrumentation and so exists in any number of arrangements.  That with which I'm most familiar is for twelve cellos, but on Monday the piece was performed by violin and piano, one of the earliest and most common versions.  The music is minimalist and consists entirely of variations on a simple six-bar theme, but for all that it is a haunting and moving work, one of the earliest triumphs of the composer's tintinnabulist style.

Following the first installment of Pärt's music came Brahms's Chaconne in D minor for left hand piano (1877-1878).  The piece is a transcription of the final movement of Bach's Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004 (1720).  The movement is among Bach's greatest achievements and perhaps the most famous piece for solo violin in Western music. It has been transcribed many times since its first publication in 1820 and there have even been piano accompaniments written for it by both Schumann and Mendelssohn.  When it came Brahms's turn, he rhapsodized over Bach's original creation in a letter to Clara Schumann, claiming it to be "a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings."  In preparing his transcription, he not surprisingly remained devoutly faithful to the original and strove to recreate as far as possible the sound of the violin itself.  He was later criticized for this unswerving allegiance by, among others, Paul Wittgenstein who in his own transcription for the left hand added a true bass line instead of merely setting the piece one octave lower.  As Wittgenstein had lost his right hand in combat in World War I, he had no choice but to set the work for the left hand only.  Brahms's insistence that his transcription be played with the left hand alone is more difficult to understand and is only partially explained by his comment to Clara:
"There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from this piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone."
While Brahms's passion for Bach's music is highly laudable, the Chaconne sounds far better when played on violin, as Bach had intended.  The piano transcription, no matter how well played, is heavier and soars not nearly so high.  This is not surprising since the piano is after all a percussive instrument.  Some notes reverberate uncomfortably at points where there should be only silence..

The first half of the recital concluded with Pärt's Da pacem Domine (“Give peace, O Lord”) (2004-2006).  The work, commissioned by Jordi Savall for a peace conference held in Barcelona, takes as its text a Gregorian chant, a form of medieval plainsong, and was originally written for four-part choir or for four soloists singing a cappella while at this recital it was performed by string quartet.  The liturgical quality inherent in Pärt's tintinnabulist style imparts to his music a distinctively mystical "new age" sound, and I think that it is this that accounts for a large part of his current popularity.

After intermission, the program concluded with Brahms's String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1860).  Brahms composed his two string sextets only a few years apart - the No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 was completed in 1864 - but what's curious is that both came long before his first Op. 51 string quartets in 1873.  One would think that writing for four parts would be much easier than for six and that the quartets should therefore have logically preceded the sextets.  One clue to this unusual chronology may lie in both forms' antecedents.  Before Brahms completed the Op. 18, the nineteenth century repertoire contained almost no examples of this instrumentation other than Louis Spohr's Op. 140 in C major composed some twelve years earlier.  On the other hand, the string quartet was already a venerable tradition by the time Brahms first came to the genre.  Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had all composed quartets that ranked among their finest creations.  One can take it as a certainty that Brahms, who famously claimed to have heard the footsteps of Beethoven behind him when writing his First Symphony, was more than a little intimidated by the magnificence of these masterpieces.  In fact, Brahms is thought to have destroyed some twenty previous attempts before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published.  He faced no such problems, however, with the sextets whose textures are actually much closer to the divertimenti of the Classical period than to the formal structures already established for the quartet genre.  Even if a bit derivative - witness the debt to Beethoven in the third movement and to Schubert in the fourth - the Op. 18 is still an important early work by a major composer.

This was one of the Jupiter ensemble's more successful programs.  It moved easily between the present day and the Romantic period with a nod to the Baroque era along the way.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Neue Galerie: Richard Gerstl

Richard Gerstl is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of twentieth century German art.  Dead in 1908 at only age 25 after having first destroyed a good bit of his art beforehand, he is survived by (at least according to his Wikipedia biography) only sixty-six paintings and eight drawings, hardly a huge legacy by any standard.  It was only in 1931, some twenty-three years after his death, that Gerstl was given his first one-man show by Otto Kallir in Vienna.  The current exhibit at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue is his first in this country.

If one reason Gerstl has been overlooked is the paucity of his oeuvre, another, at least in Vienna, was the scandal surrounding his name.  In fact, through his association with the Second Viennese School, the artist is today far better known to music lovers than to art critics.  The facts, as far as can be made out, are these: In 1907, Gerstl - who, though a non-musician himself, had a passionate interest in classical music - became friends with Arnold Schoenberg and his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky, two of the most prominent composers of the day; and he eventually moved into the same building where they were then living. Gerstl instructed the talented Schoenberg in painting while the latter saw parallels in Gerstl's artistic breakthroughs and his own achievements in music as he composed the revolutionary Second String Quartet.  Gerstl and Schoenberg's wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky's sister, also became close friends and then lovers until finally caught in the act by Schoenberg himself.  Mathilde then left husband and children behind to flee Vienna with Gerstl, but Schoenberg soon followed and managed to convince Mathilde to return to Vienna with him.  Gerstl too returned to Vienna but was unable to endure the scandal he had created.  One evening, after having been refused admittance to a concert staged by Schoenberg's students, he returned home, destroyed as much of his art as he could lay his hands on, and then committed suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself to death.  It doesn't get much more lurid than that.

All this melodrama makes it difficult to separate the man from the artist, and it's only in recent years that  Gerstl's reputation has taken on greater resonance as critics have gradually come to see in his work one of the first great flowerings of the Expressionist movement.  Commentary at the present exhibit goes so far as to state that Gerstl's portraits represent a bridge between those of Klimt and Schiele.  Additionally, Gerstl was among the first to adapt van Gogh's signature paint-laden brushstrokes to the service of Expressionism.

The exhibit takes up the entire third floor of the museum and is divided into five galleries.  The first is given over to Gerstl's self portraits as well as paintings of the artist's family and several photographs taken of the artist himself.  The gallery is dominated by the large semi-nude self-portrait completed in 1902-1903.  It's a visionary work and could be considered the artist's first mature masterpiece.

The second gallery is devoted to portraits completed by Gerstl in the years before his death.  Among them is a piece entitled Mother and Daughter (1906) notable for the wide-eyed expression with which both sitters view the painter.  Another work that stands out is the 1906 portrait of Smaragda Berg, sister of the composer Alban Berg.  And, inevitably, there are several portraits of Mathilde.   In that completed in 1907 where her features can be most clearly seen it's interesting that Gerstl made no attempt to idealize his subject.  What we see here is a rather plain woman dressed in the voluminous fashions of her time and possessing no apparent sexual allure.

The third gallery (actually a long narrow hallway) features works by Schoenberg.  A page of an autograph score is hung beside Schiele's portrait and several artworks on paper completed by the composer in an Expressionist vein.  The most noteworthy of these is entitled Vision.  If it is indeed a portrait of Mathilde, it shows her as a monstrous figure.

The fourth gallery (actually a walk-in storage closet) contains mostly works on paper, principally self-portraits, by both Gerstl and Schoenberg, the most notable of which is the latter's 1910 Gaze.  But pride of place is here given to Gerstl's 1908 Seated Female Nude.  The work is unfinished and the face left blank, so that it's impossible to state with certainty whether or not the sitter was Mathilde.

The fifth gallery is devoted to works completed in the final year of Gerstl's life.  There are several landscapes with heavy impasto brushwork that stand in sharp contrast to those completed by Klimt of the same bucolic Viennese suburbs but in a markedly pointillist style.  In addition, there is a Nude in Garden, Mathilde in Garden, and a group portrait of the entire Schoenberg family.  In all these, the Expressionist method has been carried so far that it's difficult to make out any individual features.  The intent here seems to be a complete break with prior academic and Secessionist styles in an absolute refutation of all typical norms of beauty.  But the real focus of attention in this gallery are two self-portraits.  The Nude Self-Portrait stands in contrast to the earlier semi-nude seen in Gallery No. 1.  There's no modesty here as Gerstl reveals himself fully to the viewer and none of the calm detachment that characterized the artist's expression in the first painting.  The other work, Self-Portrait Laughing, shows the artist with a maniacal smile that hints more than a little of madness.

All in all, this is a very well thought out show that makes a strong case for Gerstl as a major Expressionist artist.  It deserves to be seen by anyone with a serious interest in twentieth century German art.

The exhibit continues through September 25, 2017.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra Performs Arensky, Liebermann and Chausson

First of all, to clear up any misunderstanding, the performance given on Sunday afternoon at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street was not a symphonic concert at all but rather a chamber music recital, and a very good one at that.  I'm not sure from whence the ensemble, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra, derived its name but it consisted, at least on Sunday, of only seven musicians - William Hobbs, piano; Eric Grossman, Abigail Kralik, Renee Grossman Matthews, violins; Colette Grossman Abel, viola; and Clara Abel and Nathanael Matthews, cellos.  Together they played a full program that featured one well known work by Anton Arensky and two less familiar pieces by Lowell Liebermann and Ernest Chausson.

The recital began with Arensky's Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894).  Thanks to the variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky - taken from that composer's Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54, No. 5 - in the second movement, this is by far Arensky's best known work.  He intended it as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, who had died only a few months previously of cholera, and so the work has overall a dark character that is only enhanced by the use of a minor key and by the unusual instrumentation - violin, viola, and two cellos - that emphasizes the lower tonal registers.  The somber nature of the work is apparent immediately in the first movement whose opening theme takes as its source a funeral chant from the Russian Orthodox liturgy; the same theme then reappears as a coda at the end of the seven variations in the second movement.  And the work's elegiac character is again emphasized in the final movement whose theme is derived from still another liturgical source, the Requiem mass.  Even the Tchaikovsky song "Legend" (adapted from the 1857 poem "Roses and Thorns" by Richard Henry Stoddard) that provides the theme upon which the variations are based contains an oblique reference to Jesus's crucifixion and so by extension to the suffering Tchaikovsky endured during his life.  Underlying the entire work is a strain of Russian Romanticism that makes it a quite fitting tribute to Tchaikovsky, himself the leading proponent of that school of music.

The next work was Liebermann's Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 28 (1989), a piece with which I had previously been unfamiliar.  Before this, I had known the composer primarily through his eleven nocturnes for solo piano, a series I hold in the highest esteem.  The present work, originally commissioned by the Spoleto Festival, does not possess the neo-Romantic character of the nocturnes but is instead a well thought out piece of modern music that pays particular attention to the solo violin part, played exceptionally well here by Eric Grossman, while the piano and string quartet stand in for orchestra.  The music is extremely inventive throughout and occasionally displays an uneasy tension that gives rise to bursts of nervous energy in the violin part, but for all that the work is easily accessible.  At the conclusion of Sunday's performance the composer, who had been sitting in the audience, rose to take a brief bow.

After intermission, the program ended with Chausson's Concerto in D major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21 (1889).  This was one of the composer's first major successes, and it's easy to understand why.  As in Debussy's late chamber works, the concerto seeks to instill a sense of nationalism in French music, at the time heavily under the influence of Wagner, by casting a backward glance to past glories.  This is accomplished through the adaptation of Baroque dance forms - a sicilienne in the second movement and a gigue in the fourth - while giving the whole a melodic warmth.  If the work has a flaw, it's that it's weighted too heavily on the violin and piano parts and at times becomes almost a dialogue between those two instruments while leaving the quartet with little to do.  The concerto was dedicated, as were several other works by Chausson, to the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who undertook the solo part at the 1892 premiere in Brussels .  

At the conclusion of the recital, I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Mr. Liebermann.  Noting the highly distinctive instrumentation used in both the two final pieces, I asked the composer if there were any connection between his work and Chausson's.  He answered that at the time of the Spoleto commission, the festival had already programmed the Chausson concerto and had explicitly requested from him a work using the same combination of instruments.  Both concertos were in fact performed at the festival with Joshua Bell taking the solo violin part on each and Jean-Yves Thibaudet the piano part.  Mr. Liebermann added that he had deliberately timed the piece so that it could be included on a CD recording together with the Chausson.  In the end, though, the Chausson was paired with the Ravel Piano Trio, an indication perhaps that the recording company (London) did not want to risk releasing an album comprised of two relatively unknown pieces.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Max Beckmann: The Path to Myth

Max Beckmann: The Path to Myth by Reinhard Spieler is one of a series of soft-cover monographs on German artists published by Taschen.  Like others in the series, it is profusely illustrated, though the quality of the reproductions leaves much to be desired, and is a mixture of biography and art criticism.  In this case, however, the criticism is so intense that it leaves little room for a more detailed description of the major events in the artist's life.  And not only that, but the reader often feels Spieler is reading too much into the artworks in order to provide each with a mythic dimension that is not necessarily there.  For example, when discussing the 1930 painting The Bath, the author goes to a great deal of trouble to link the work to the ancient Greek tragedy of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.  In his reading, the work is charged with erotic tension and homicidal inclinations.  But the associations are at best obscure.  The painting can just as easily be seen as a depiction of a playful interlude between the artist and his wife Quappi as she prepares to join him in his bath.

Beckmann had a troubled career representative of the sometimes insurmountable difficulties faced by many twentieth century modern German artists, including George Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, to name only a few.  Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884 at a time when the newly unified German state was rapidly becoming the major power in Europe.  His early life was spent in comfortable middle class surroundings and he achieved early success as an academic painter.  He might have continued in this vein indefinitely had it not been for the outbreak of World War I when he was 30 years old.  It's difficult at a distance of one hundred years to appreciate how traumatic the conflict was to those living in once proud Germany, a country that prided itself not only on its military might but on its cultural achievements as well.  Beckmann's military service proved to be the turning point in his life.  While serving in the medical corps at the front lines he, like many others on both sides, suffered a nervous breakdown from which it took years to recover.  Once the war was over, there was no going back to his previous if only because that world no longer existed.  Not surprisingly, Beckmann's wartime experiences had a profound impact on his painting.  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."
One has only to look at such works as The Night (1919), an oil on canvas, to appreciate the depth of Beckmann's suffering.  There were also changes on a technical level as the artist sought a new medium to better express the horror of his new worldview.  Beckmann produced several portfolios of graphic works in the years immediately following the war's end.  The best and most harrowing of these is a set of ten lithographs collectively entitled Hell (1919), including a monochromatic version of The Night.  It was only gradually, in the relative stability of the Weimar period, that Beckmann was able to reestablish his career and leave behind his nightmarish visions.

Beckmann did indeed include mythic content in his later work.  The most powerful example of this is to be found in his first triptych entitled The Departure (1932), completed shortly before his flight to Amsterdam.  Through the use of mythic content, the artist was able to create new dimensions of meaning in his work, much as James Joyce had done in Ulysses.  But there was another reason Beckmann moved in this direction.  His work had already been castigated by the Nazis, and mythic content that could not be linked directly to any current political situation provided a safe outlet for the expression of his ideas even if they did include veiled references to world affairs.  It did little good.  Beckmann's was condemned as a "cultural Bolshevik" by the Nazis and was forced to give up his teaching position in Frankfurt and eventually fled to Amsterdam where he spent ten years in precarious exile.  Meanwhile, his work was removed from German museums and galleries and was included in the notorious Entartete Kunst exhibit held in Munich in 1937.

One facet of Beckmann's career that this monograph explores in detail is his absorption with self-portraits.  In the tradition of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Beckmann ceaselessly painted his own likeness throughout the length of his career.  Better than any text, these portraits show the evolution of the artist from an idealistic youth to an embittered old man crippled by the heart disease that was finally to kill him at age 66 in New York City.

The book is worth reading if only because there are so few works devoted to this major German artist who, due to world events beyond his control, never truly received the recognition he deserved.  Hopefully, there will someday appear a definitive full length biography that will provide him greater prominence in the history of modern art.