Monday, October 30, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach and Liszt

On Wednesday the 25th, I returned to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the second of two recitals given only a week apart by the Piano Performance Forum.  On this occasion, the recital lasted almost exactly an hour and featured the works of two of the greatest composers for keyboard, J.S. Bach and Liszt.

The program opened with Bach's Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 (1717-1723) as performed by JiNa Kim.  I've always considered this to be Bach's finest work for keyboard and am surprised it's not played more often. The piece was most probably written during Bach's sojourn in Köthen where he served as kapellmeister to Prince Leopold and composed primarily secular music.  The position allowed Bach comparatively more freedom of expression, and he made full use of it in creating some of his most iconic works, most notably the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas, and the Brandenburg concertos.  It did initially strike me as strange to encounter the word "chromatic" in association with Bach since the term usually signifies to twenty-first century listeners the twelve tone scale and hence atonal music.  But chromaticism - the interpolation of diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale - was widely used by many composers, including Mozart, and does not in itself denote atonalism.  In fact, the chromatic fantasie itself did not originate with Bach - it had been in use as early as the sixteenth century in the music of John Dowland and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck

The next work was Bach's Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto ("Concerto in the Italian taste"), BWV 971 (1735); it was performed by Christian DeLuca.  Together, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, which I had heard at the prior week's recital, make up the composer's second book of keyboard exercises, Clavier-Übung II.  Another feature these works share is that both the Concerto and the Overture were originally intended for the two-manual harpsichord, a rare occurrence in Bach's oeuvre and one that can cause problems in interpretation when played on a modern piano.   In publishing the two pieces together Bach was attempting to contrast for his German audience two "foreign" styles of musical composition.  Accordingly, while the movements of the French Overture correspond to dances popular in the Baroque era, such as the sarabande and gigue, the three movements of the Italian Concerto use the markings andante and presto that are more familiar to modern audiences.  Bach had already spent a great deal of time transcribing for solo keyboard various works by Vivaldi, and this was his own attempt at a concerto grosso in the style of the Italian master but composed for one instrument alone.  Bach held Vivaldi in very high esteem, and perhaps for this reason the Italian Concerto is a more successful endeavor than the French Overture.  In the Concerto one hears a playfulness and lightness of touch not often found in Bach's music.

The program concluded with a rendition by Qilin Sun of Liszt's famous Sonata in B minor (1853).  Perhaps what's most interesting when studying the history of the piece is that it demonstrates that as early as 1853 there were already in place the fault lines that were to divide music lovers in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Wagner, proponent of the "new music" and Liszt's future son-in-law, found the piece to be beautiful "beyond all conception" and "sublime."  This is not surprising since the sonata makes full use of the device of "thematic transformation" that formed the basis of Wagner's operas.  On the other hand, Brahms, who was to become the acknowledged leader of "Classical Romanticism," fell asleep while hearing Liszt play the piece.  In much the same manner, Brahms's future champion Eduard Hanslick (the same who was to refer to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto as "music that stinks to the ear") wrote dismissively: "whoever has heard that [the sonata], and finds it beautiful, is beyond help."  Even Clara Schumann joined the chorus, writing "This is nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there!"  It's fascinating to speculate what her husband Robert, to whom Liszt's work had been dedicated, might have thought of it, but by the time he received his copy he had already been institutionalized and never had an opportunity to hear it performed let alone play it himself.  And yet it's evident that Robert's own Fantasie in C major, dedicated to Liszt, influenced the composition of the sonata in both length and structure as well as in the quiet ending that fades to nothingness.  The sonata also hearkens back to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy in its single movement form (in the sense that the entire work is performed without pause).  Certainly, today these three works are seen as the essence of Romanticism, at least as far as the repertoire for solo piano is concerned.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Chen Yi and Bach

Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum recently sponsored two recitals at Paul Hall on consecutive Wednesday afternoons.  The first, on October 18th, featured the works of four composers that taken together spanned the interval from the Baroque era to the present day.

The program opened with Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K. 511 (1787) as performed by Derek Wang.  This is one of the composer's darkest works.  Much has been made of Mozart's use of G minor to express tragedy, but it may have that A minor held for him an ever greater personal significance.  The only other major work in this key I know of is the Piano Sonata No. 8, K. 310/300d written in 1778 immediately following the death of the composer's mother during the disastrous visit to Paris.  Underlying both the rondo and the sonata is a sense of almost unassuageable grief.  Why Mozart should have experienced such deep pain is much less obvious in the case of the rondo than it is in that of the sonata.  Mozart had composed the rondo after just having returned from Prague where Figaro had proved a resounding success.  If anything, the composer should have been exuberant at the reception his opera had received.  The source of his unhappiness may actually have been occasioned by his return to Vienna where his initial popularity had waned dramatically, or it may have been that there had occurred some biographical incident of which we are unaware.  In any event, the rondo remains one of Mozart's greatest and most heartfelt works for solo piano.  It's impossible to listen to it without being deeply moved.

The next musician to take the stage was Chuyue Zhang who performed Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Corelli (1931).  For anyone with a love of the composer's Russian Romanticism, this work is something of a disappointment.  It's deftly done but is more in the nature of an academic exercise that makes no appeal to the emotions of the listener.  Perhaps Rachmaninoff felt the same way - he never recorded it and, after having performed it in recital for two or three years, he never played it again.  Rachmaninoff composed twenty variations on the La Folia theme (which is not, in fact, an original Corelli composition), but I'm not sure they were all played at this recital; the performance seemed to brief to have included them all.  Then again, Rachmaninoff himself had no trouble skipping any number of the variations when, as he claimed in a letter to Medtner, the audience coughed too loudly.

The third piece was by a composer with whom I had not previously been familiar.  Pianist Aran Qian performed Duo Ye by Chen Yi.  There is a very erudite (and lengthy) dissertation by Xiaole Li of the University of Hawaii available online that treats this work in great depth.  In it, the author makes the point on page 156 that:
"Because Duo Ye grows out of folksongs, dance, and traditional ensemble but with creative twentieth-century techniques, Duo Ye has been accepted by the judges of the National Piano Composition Competition and by music critics as a model balancing of traditional and modern elements."
I found this analysis highly interesting because in listening to the piece I had failed to detect in it any Chinese folk elements whatsoever.  This, however, may have simply been due to my general ignorance of the Chinese folk tradition.  When thinking of contemporary Chinese music, I usually call to mind the music of such composers as Tan Dun.  It's confusing to me then that this same dissertation quotes a critic who condemn's Tan Dun's music, specifically his Feng Ya Song, because "it represents a tendency of being xiandai pai [modern school] - a synonym of decadent Western modern arts."

The recital ended with YuChong Wu performing J.S. Bach's Ouvertüre nach Französischer Art ("Overture in the French style"), BWV 831 (1733, rev. 1735).  This was a suite in B minor that was published as the second half of Clavier-Übung II, a series of keyboard exercises, though certainly not intended for beginners.  It begins with an overture followed by nine dance movements and ending in an echo.  Some of the dances - the gavotte, passepied and bourrée - are used twice while the allemande is omitted.  Though the title and dances reference the music of the French Baroque, there is little here of its galant manner.  Instead, the work is written in Bach's usual polyphonic style.  This is the composer's longest keyboard suite, and it's mesmerizing in its complexity. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Laurie Smukler, Joel Krosnick and Robert McDonald with Qing Jiang

Although Juilliard's faculty members are known primarily for their superb skills as educators, many are also numbered among the world's finest musicians.  On Friday evening at Morse Hall, I was lucky enough to hear a recital given by several such gifted individuals.  Featured were Laurie Smukler, violin, Joel Krosnick, cello, Robert McDonald, piano, and guest artist Qing Jiang, piano.  Together they performed three major works from the chamber repertoire, two of them by well known composers and a third by a composer whose work truly deserves to be heard more often.

The program opened with a pair of violin sonatas performed by Laurie Smukler with Robert McDonald providing accompaniment on piano.  The first was Leoš Janáček 's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1914).  Listening to it, it's hard to believe this is the work of a 60 year old man, so dynamic does it sound. Than again, Janáček was the quintessential late bloomer; his most important works were not written until the 1920's when he was already 70 years old.  The sonata itself was begun in 1914 but was initially rejected by Jaroslav Kocián, the Czech violinist originally scheduled to premiere it, and was not finally completed until 1921.  The intervening seven years were a critical period in Janáček's career.  First came the outbreak of World War I in the course of which, the patriotic composer hoped, Russia would free the Czechs from their Austrian overlords.  (According to a dissertation by Danijela Žezelj-Gualdi, "Janáček insisted on the most agitated rendering of the high piano tremolo over the final appearance of the chorale-like theme in the last movement [of the sonata], explaining that it signified 'the Russian armies entering Hungary.'")  It was also during this period that Janáček received his first real artistic recognition when the (revised) opera Jenůfa premiered in Prague in 1916 and the noted critic Max Brod agreed to translate it into German.

One of the most interesting features of the Janáček sonata is its relation to Czech folk music, a source of inspiration previously tapped by Dvořák.  Anticipating Bartók's ethnomusicological recordings, Janáček had in 1885 journeyed through the Czech countryside collecting his country's folk songs.  These had a deep impact on his music.  Again quoting Žezelj-Gualdi's dissertation:
"Janáček’s musical language reflects the constant inspiration he had from Czech folk music.  He based his compositions on tonal harmony but in a less standardized way than that used by many of his contemporaries. He did not cite folk songs explicitly in the Violin Sonata, but his use of short and repetitive themes, modal harmonies, ostinato patterns, improvisational passage work, three-note motives, and modified traditional structural forms can be traced back to folk music."
The second sonata was Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 96 (1812).  This was the tenth and last of the composer's violin sonatas and is also customarily acknowledged as the final work of his middle period.  While perhaps not so well known as the Sonata No. 9, the "Kreutzer," the Op. 96 is to my ear a far more accomplished work.  If Beethoven's middle period had been characterized by the Romantic hero's struggle against fearsome odds (i.e., his deafness) to achieve his destiny, by 1812 Beethoven had nothing left to prove.  He had won the contest on his own terms and was now acknowledged as great a master as Haydn and Mozart before him.  The composer could now experience some sense of peace within himself before moving on to the works of his late period.  In the words of critic Sydney Finkelstein, "the mood [of Op. 96] is one of gentle lyricism, with but glimpses of the profound depths of experience and conquest of pain that had made possible the achievement of this serenity."  This newfound tranquility can be found throughout the work but is most apparent in the slow second movement marked adagio espressivo.

While Ms. Smukler's playing on both sonatas was superb, it was the pianism of Robert McDonald that most interested me. I've noted over the years that the finest Juilliard pianists are invariably students of Mr. McDonald, and this was a rare opportunity for me to hear him take his own turn at the keyboard.  Not surprisingly, his performance on both pieces was masterful.

After a brief intermission, the recital concluded with Laurie Smukler, Joel Krosnick and Qing Jiang performing Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 24 (1945).  Before beginning the piece, Mr. Krosnick briefly addressed the audience regarding the composer's life and work.  Although Weinberg is now considered a major Soviet composer, his life was far from easy - his parents and sister were killed in the Holocaust, his father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Stalin, and he himself was arrested for his alleged association with the "Doctors' plot." Even though Weinberg spent most of his career laboring in obscurity, a victime of Stalin's anti-Semitism, he was a prolific composer whose works were championed by his close friend Shostakovich who also exerted a great deal of influence on the development of his music.  The present four-movement trio was a highly dramatic work.  It veered without pause from the mournful Larghetto that closed the first movement to the pounding rhythms of the Tocatta that opened the second.  Perhaps the finest passage was the third movement Poem in which was distilled, or so at least it seemed, all the suffering Weinberg had experienced during his lifetime.  Throughout the work, great weight was given to the strings while the piano, expertly played by Qing Jiang, remained silent for comparatively long intervals.  I came away from the performance knowing I had just heard a true masterpiece.  It's tragic that the works of so great a composer are not more often performed.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Juilliard415 Performs Couperin, Telemann, Rameau and Lully

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear the first of four recitals of Baroque chamber music given each school year by the Juilliard415 ensemble.  During the course of each semester the Juilliard musicians focus on the music of one given country or geographical area; for the fall term they are concentrating on the music of eighteenth century France.  Accordingly, the program featured works by a number of that country's composers as well as one German whose works had a profound impact on the development of French music.

The recital began with François Couperin's Dances from L'Espagnole, taken from Les Nations (1726), here arranged for flute, oboe, two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  It was in Italy that the Baroque musical era truly began in the early seventeenth century, and few figures were as key to its development as Arcangelo Corelli who more or less invented on his own such basic forms as the sonata and concerto.  Couperin was one of the few French musicians who possessed enough insight to recognize the importance of Corelli's achievement and to build upon it.  It was Couperin who introduced the trio sonata form to French audiences in his L'apothéose de Corelli.  Going even further, he sought to reconcile the wildly divergent styles of Italian and French music in a series of works he entitled Les goûts réunis.  It's somewhat ironic then that Couperin should have been chosen by Ravel as a symbol of French nationalism in Le Tombeau de Couperin.

The next work consisted of three selections - Overture, Sarabande and Chaconne - from  Jean-Marie Leclair's dance suite Première Récréation de musique d'une exécution facile (1737) arranged for two violins, cello and harpsichord.  Leclair was a somewhat hotheaded character and in 1737, the year this work was composed, he left France for the Netherlands after having resigned his position as ordinaire de la musique following an argument.  It might have been better for him if he had stayed away from France.  He was stabbed to death in Paris in 1758.

Following the Leclair was Jacques-Martin Hotteterre's Trio Sonata in E minor, Op. 3, No. 4 taken from Sonates en trio, livre 1, Op. 3 (1712) arranged for oboe, violin, bassoon and theorbo.  Hotteterre was nicknamed le Romain for his enthusiastic embrace of Italian music.  Though he actually only lived in Rome for two years, his exposure to Corelli's music while there had a lasting influence on his style of composition.  In his own time, however, Hotteterre was most famous as a virtuoso flutist.  As author of the first instruction manual for that instrument, L'Art de préluder sur la flûte traversière, and as composer of numerous works that featured woodwind instruments, he exerted enormous influence on the development of the flute repertoire.

So far, all the composers featured had been French, but the next work was by the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann, his Concerto à 4, TWV 43:G1 taken from Quadri (1730) arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.  Telemann was the odd man out at Tuesday's recital - the only non-French composer to be featured.  At the end of the performance I asked Robert Mealy, the program director, why his music had been included.  Mr. Mealy explained that Telemann's music had been extremely popular in France and had exerted a great deal of influence on French music.  Part of the reason for Telemann's popularity may have been due to the fact that he consciously strove in the six Quadri for an international style - two of the concertos were in the German style, two in the Italian and two in the French.  This internationalism was not surprising since Telemann had written the Quadri in anticipation of his visit to Paris, the only occasion on which he traveled outside Germany, that in the event did not occur until 1737.

Next on the program was a work by one of the best known French composers, Jean-Philippe Rameau.  The piece chosen was Premier Concert from Pièces de clavecin en concert (1747) arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  Although by the time this piece was written Rameau had become more famous as a composer of opera than of instrumental music, he was still the conductor of a private orchestra and wrote prolifically for the harpsichord.  Rameau's music was extremely innovative, and this actually made him a figure of controversy for those who thought he had betrayed the traditions set forth by Lully.

Rameau's predecessor, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, was featured next.  The selections were taken from his music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) arranged for two violins, viola, cello and violone.  A great deal of Lully's importance derives from his association with Louis XIV who made him first royal composer of instrumental music and then director of the royal violin orchestra.  Such patronage from an absolute monarch made Lully the most influential composer in France.  His position at court also led to his collaboration with Molière not only at court but also at the playwright's theater in Paris.  It was at the premiere of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that Lully achieved his apotheosis when he danced the part of the mufti in the last act cérémonie des Turcs.

The program concluded with Louis-Gabriel Guillemain's Sonata III in D minor from Six sonates en quatuors ou conversations galantes (1743) arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.  Guillemain was not nearly so important a composer as Couperin, Rameau and Lully, and I'm not quite sure why his music was chosen to end the recital.  Though competent as both a violinist and composer, his greatest achievement seems to have been drinking himself to death.

Tuesday's recital lasted a full hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.  The high quality of the musicianship made it a feast for those with an interest in Baroque music which I feel is best heard when played, as it was on this occasion, on actual period instruments.  This is really the only way one can appreciate the music in the same manner as the seventeenth and eighteenth century audiences who first heard it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Hummel, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Neiman

On Monday afternoon I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear another performance by the Jupiter Players.  The program on this occasion highlighted the works of composers who were also in their day well known pianists.  These included Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Chopin as well as contemporary composer Adam Neiman who, as pianist, was also the featured guest artist.

The program opened with Hummel's Grand rondo brillant in G Major Op. 126, for flute and piano (1834).  Hummel is one of those musical figures who, during their day, stood at the center of European culture and exerted great influence on the next generation of musicians and composers but who then, at their deaths, were almost immediately forgotten, their repuations allowed to slide into obscurity.  A contemporary of Beethoven, Hummel studied with many of the same teachers - Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Joseph Haydn, and Antonio Salieri - after first having been a pupil of  both Mozart and Muzio Clementi.  In turn, Hummel exerted considerable influence on the early Romantics.  Schubert dedicated his final three piano sonatas to Hummel (although the dedicatee was changed posthumously to Schumann by Schubert's publisher); Liszt studied piano under Hummel's pupil Carl Czerny; and Chopin may have been inspired to compose his Preludes after having heard Hummel's own Op. 67.  The present piece was a late composition written only three years before Hummel's death in Weimar where he had in his last years become close friends with Goethe.

The next work was Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat major (1847), titled "Carnival in Pest," as transcribed by the composer for piano, violin and cello.  Like the other Rhapsodies, the work was originally conceived as a virtuoso piece for solo piano and incorporated the folk music of Liszt's homeland.  In this case, the themes used were among those the composer had heard while visiting an actual carnival several years earlier.  Bartók was later to praise the piece as a "work of perfect authenticity," and what better judge than he?  Usually, I strongly prefer to hear works in their original instrumentation rather than in transcription.  This piece, however, definitely seemed to benefit by the addition of strings, most notably in those sections where the folk influence was strongest.  It was really the violin that best captured the carnival spirit.

The first half of the recital concluded with Rachmaninoff's Two Morceaux de salon Op. 6 for piano and violin (1893).  Although these two pieces were written fairly early in Rachmaninoff's career, as the low opus number indicates, they are nevertheless extremely accomplished works.  This is worth mentioning because they preceded by only two years the Symphony No. 1, whose disastrous premiere in 1897 precipitated a psychological crisis that caused the composer to lose all confidence in his ability.  Though only miniatures, the Morceaux reveal a composer fully in command of his material.  Rachmaninoff was, of course, one of the greatest twentieth century pianists; but in these pieces greater weight is given to the violin, played here exceptionally well by Stefan Milenkovich.  The titles of the two movements provide a fairly accurate indication of the music contained within them.  The first is called Romance while the second is labeled Danses tziganes 'Danse hongroise.'  The latter was a decidedly appropriate selection to follow Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.

After intermission, the program continued with Adam Neiman's Trio for piano, violin and clarinet  (2017).  In his introductory remarks, Mr. Neiman mentioned that the ten-minute piece had been commissioned by a Midwest music festival for exactly that length of time and that combination of instruments.  The work was to be sandwiched between two Brahms works, and the festival organizers wanted a piece that "bridged the gap" between the younger and more passionate Brahms and his older and more philosophical persona.  As for the style of the trio, Mr. Neiman - who is often referred to as a neo-Romantic - described it as "unapologetically tonal and melodic."  And that it was.  Perhaps for that reason it was much more enjoyable than most contemporary music I've heard recently.  It proved to be an extremely accomplished work.  Surprisingly, considering Mr. Neiman is best known as a pianist, and a good one at that, great weight was given to the strings throughout the work while the piano remained "a constant and subdued presence."

The recital concluded with a performance of Chopin's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1828-1829).  This early work is something of an anomaly in the composer's oeuvre that seems far removed from the Romantic miniatures for solo piano that would characterize his later work and win him fame.  Part of the reason for this is that Chopin was still a student in Warsaw at the time the trio was completed, a pupil of the composer Józef Elsner, and the work was at least partly in the nature of an assignment.  Its structure and tone are Classical rather than Romantic and hearken back to Beethoven (as well as Hummel).  Some critics have even heard in the adagio sostenuto the influence of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in C minor.  Nevertheless, the tone of the work, particularly in the slow movement, is unabashedly Romantic, an indication that even at this early point in his career Chopin was fully able to imbue his music with the force of his personality.  If there's any problem with the piece it's Chopin's lack of experience in composing for strings.  Even though he had assistance in writing those parts, there is never any of the interplay among the strings and piano that one finds in the work of more experienced chamber music composers.   Nevertheless, the work was well received at its premiere and deserves to be heard more often today.  In his usual hyperbolic style, Schumann wrote of it: "Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?"

Monday, October 16, 2017

Met Opera: James Levine Conducts Die Zauberflöte

On Saturday afternoon, I walked down to the Met Opera to hear my first oprea of the season, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.  It seemed appropriate that I should begin the season with an opera conducted by Music Director Emeritus James Levine whose work on the podium has guided my understanding of opera since I first developed an interest in the genre more than thirty years ago.  To my mind, no one has a deeper knowledge of Mozart's music than Maestro Levine, and without his insightful leadership of the Met Orchestra I doubt I would have the appreciation of these operas I now possess.

Die Zauberflöte was, of course, the composer's final opera. Technically, though, it isn't opera at all but singspiel, a form of German musical theater that features both singing and spoken dialogue.  Mozart was thoroughly familiar with the genre.  He had already enjoyed great success immediately following his arrival in Vienna with Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a lighthearted comedy set in Turkey.  In between the two works, Mozart had concentrated on Italian opera, first with the opera seria Idomeneo and then with the three majestic Da Ponte operas.  Returning to singspiel did, however, present the composer with one major problem.  The use of spoken dialogue in place of recitatives meant that he could not use his music to drive the action forward as he had so successfully done in the Da Ponte operas.

Mozart's renewed interest in singspiel had been prompted by his involvement with a local theatrical troupe led by Emanuel Schikaneder who was to become one of the most noted impresarios of his era.  Not that this was Schikaneder's only connection with Die Zauberflöte.  He was also the librettist, stage manager, and even played the role of Papageno in the original production.  Mozart and Schikaneder had first met while the former was still living in Salzburg, and the acquaintance was again taken up when Mozart became friends in Vienna with Benedikt Schack, a singer associated with the troupe who was to play the first Tamino.

Perhaps the most important link between Mozart and Schikaneder was that they were both Freemasons.  This is critical to an understanding of Die Zauberflöte because the work is in a very real sense one long allegory meant to illustrate the beliefs and rites of the organization.  These references are sometimes made explicit as, for example, in the second scene of Act II when Tamino and Papageno arrive at the Temple of Ordeal and are sworn to silence after having been warned of the dangers they face.  This obviously parallels an actual Masonic initiation practice.  For some reason, Mozart's association with Freemasonry is often downplayed, but it's central to any understanding of the action onstage.  Mozart placed a great deal of importance on his membership in the Freemasons and made many friendships through it that were to have a huge impact on his life and work.  Though the plot of Die Zauberflöte often appears comic to the point of slapstick, to Mozart it was a highly serious project involving his deepest personal beliefs.  As Jan Swafford points out in the Met's program notes:
"The Masonic allegory is so pervasive in Die Zauberflöte that some critics believe that the opera's central message was to proclaim the importance of the Masonic order in a time when it was under increasing pressure from the throne."
If there's any consolation to be found in Mozart's untimely death, it's that he at least died knowing his final work had been a success.  He conducted the premiere at the Theater auf der Wieden on September 30, 1791 and returned almost nightly thereafter in the company of friends to enjoy the applause and calls for encores.  In October, he wrote to his wife:
"But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed."
Less than three months after the opera had opened, Mozart was dead.

Saturday's performance was as gratifying as one could wish.  James Levine, as ususal, did an excellent job conducting the lengthy work while well supported by a cast that, though it contained no big names, worked flawlessly together as an ensemble.  Praise is rightfully due Golda Schultz as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Tamino, Markus Werba as Papageno, and René Pape as Sarastro.  Meanwhile, Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night brought down the house with her Act II aria Der Hölle Rache.

The production by Julie Taymor (who also designed the costumes and puppets), though fanciful, was fairly restrained.  Special effects were not allowed to become distractions, and the revolving set kept the action moving at a brisk pace.

N.B.  There are two different versions of this opera in repertory at the Met.  Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's original work sung in German while The Magic Flute is an edited version, usually staged during the holiday period, that is sung in English.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Music Among Friends" Perform Beethoven

On Sunday evening I went to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a group with which I had previously been unfamiliar perform an all-Beethoven program.  Calling itself "Music Among Friends," the ensemble consisted of three extremely talented musicians - violinist Jessica Fellows, cellist Ariana Nelson, and pianist Jerome Rosen.  Ms. Fellows and Ms. Nelson both hold MM degrees from Juilliard while Mr. Rosen, a graduate of Curtis, is also a violinist and has regularly performed with several major orchestras.

The program opened with the Violin Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1 (1798).  Although as a performer Beethoven achieved fame for his pianism, he was also thoroughly conversant with the string instruments and in fact began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra.  More importantly, when he first arrived in Vienna he studied violin with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of the preeminent musicians of the day.  (He also studied vocal composition with Antonio Salieri to whom the three Op. 12 sonatas are dedicated.)  It may have been the association with Schuppanzigh that prompted Beethoven to write these early works in the hope the virtuoso might perform them in recital.  Though they adhere closely to the three movement classical structure formulated by Haydn, they are at the same time innovative in the weight given the violin part.  If the sonatas were not well received when first performed, it may have been because Beethoven was trying too hard and put too much effort into them.  The first movement of the present piece contains three distinct themes, and such an abundance of material may have confused early listeners as much as the composer's penchant for exploring distantly related keys within the same movement.

The next work was the Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1808).  Written ten years after the Op. 12 sonatas, the Op. 69 was composed well into Beethoven's middle period at roughly the same time as the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the Choral Fantasy.  The composer was long past his apprenticeship to Haydn by this point and yet the sonata retains the classical three movement structure and is far more genial than the bulk of Beethoven's output during this period.  The adagio cantabile that opens the final movement is among the loveliest passages Beethoven would compose.  The work is revolutionary, however, in the importance given the cello itself.  From the opening bars that are played by the cello without accompaniment, it is apparent that the instrument has come into its own with this work.  Long relegated to the role of continuo in the Baroque era, the cello is here treated for the first time as a solo instrument.

After intermission, the recital concluded with Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 (1811) nicknamed the "Archduke" for its dedication to the composer's patron, Archduke Rudolph.  This was the last and finest of Beethoven's piano trios and is almost symphonic in its breadth.  Beyond that, its first performances were notable for having been the last occasions on which the composer appeared in public as a pianist.  It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been for Beethoven, who had once been the foremost virtuoso in Vienna, to have realized that his ability at the keyboard was irretrievably lost.  Louis Spohr, who was present at the premiere, somewhat unkindly described the state in which Beethoven's encroaching deafness had left him:
"On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate."
Though written toward the end of the composer's middle period, the trio already looked ahead to the masterpieces of the late period. This is most evident in the elaborate set of variations that make up the slow third movement. It sometimes seems Beethoven's entire career was determined by his deafness. Just as his despair at the loss of his hearing had marked the beginning of his middle period, so its advancement to the point he could no longer play the piano propelled him forward into his late period in which he appeared to have thought more in terms of pure music than of composing for individual instruments.

One of the great advantages to living on the Upper West Side is that on practically any night of the week one can literally wander into a church or other informal venue and hear performances of the highest quality.  On this occasion the musicians displayed not only great expertise on their chosen instruments but also a deep understanding of Beethoven's oeuvre.  It was an evening well spent.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Juilliard Faculty Recital: Lara Lev

Early Saturday evening, while the New York Film Festival was playing next door at Alice Tully, I went to Paul Hall to hear a recital by Lara Lev, a member of the Juilliard pre-college faculty.  I had previously heard Ms. Lev in recital in 2013 at this same venue and had been extremely impressed by her command of her chosen instrument.  At both that earlier recital and the one given Saturday evening, it was apparent that the violinist had deliberately chosen a program that presented great technical difficulties for even the most accomplished musicians.  The present one-hour performance accordingly featured an eclectic selection of works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Béla BartókIgor Stravinsky, J.S. Bach, and George Rochberg.

The program opened with music from the Baroque era - Biber's Passacaglia in G minor, known as the "Guardian Angel," for solo violin (c. 1645).  This piece concludes the Rosary Sonatas (as the title page was missing from Biber's autograph, these works have also come to be known as the Mystery Sonatas), a series of fifteen sonatas for violin and continuo that together with the Passacaglia are considered the composer's masterpiece.  Though not so well known today as his contemporaries Bach and Vivaldi, Biber was one of the great composers of the Baroque era as well as a virtuoso violinist.  I've heard a number of his works performed on period instruments at Juilliard415 recitals and have been astonished at how modern his music sounds.  The Passacaglia is one of his most innovative works.  Employing standard violin tuning rather than the scodatura used in the sonatas themselves, Biber created here one of the milestones of the violin repertoire.  As a 2005 dissertation by Yu-Chi Wang states:
"Biber used high positions and polyphonic writing to explore idiomatic and virtuosic writing for violin. His work created new demands on the violinists’ technique and were more difficult than either Corelli’s compositions or Teleman’s twelve Fantasias, which were written decades after the Passacaglia. The use of chords in Passacaglia creates resonant acoustics, and the use of running notes reveals a brilliant violinistic virtuosity. Biber’s counterpoint played on a single violin was also a breakthrough in violin technique. Davitt Moroney asserts that Biber’s Passacaglia was the most important precursor of J. S. Bach’s six unaccompaneid violin works. The Passacaglia was constructed of twelve sections with an introduction and a coda. Each section has a different length. The excitement of this piece arises from its construction out of sections which alternately feature chords and arpeggios, set in an increasingly intense rhythmic texture."
Moving from the Baroque to the twentieth century, Ms. Lev next performed the Tempo di ciaccona, the first movement of Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117 (1944).  Ms. Lev had previously performed the sonata in its entirety at her 2013 recital, and I was sorry on this occasion not to have heard the full work once again.  Inspired of course by Bach's great Ciaccona (itself performed later at this recital), the movement is not technically a chaconne though there are obvious stylistyic similarities to the Baroque form.  It contains three separate themes and relies heavily, as do the majority of Bartók's compositions, on Hungarian folk music.  The entire work was written while Bartók was convalescing from leukemia in North Carolina at roughly the same time he was composing the Piano Concerto No. 3.  It was the piano that was Bartók's instrument of choice - his skills as a performer were at the virtuoso level - and I doubt very much that he would ever have composed a piece for solo violin if he had not been commissioned to so by Yehudi Menuhin.  Although the sonata is an important and striking work, it never in my opinion quite rises to the heights attained by Bartók's greatest piano compositions. Still, it must be borne in mind that at thet time he wrote the sonata, the composer was desperately ill and had only roughly another year to live.

It was also in 1944, the same year that Bartók wrote his sonata, that Stravinsky composed his Elegie, the only work he ever created for solo viola.  As the program for this recital noted, the work was "composed in memory of Alphonse Onnou, violinist and founder of the Pro-Arte String Quartet in Brussels 1912."  The best short description of this composition is probably that furnished by Eric Walter White, author of Stravinsky, The Composer and His Works (2nd ed., 1979):
"This Elegy for unaccompanied viola (which may also be played a fifth higher by an unaccompanied violin) is a two-part invention in ternary form....The first section is a kind of chant played above a simple flowing accompaniment. The middle section is skillfully written to give the impression of a fugue....At the climax the fugal subject is answered by its inversion at a distance of a single bar. (A single bar) forms a bridge leading to the recapitulation of the first section with an altered cadence in the last four bars. The viola (or violin) plays con sordino (with mute) throughout." 
Following the Stravinsky, Ms. Lev returned to the Baroque era to perform what any number of musicians have agreed is the greatest work written for solo violin, Bach's Ciaccona, the fifth and final movement of his Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 (1717-1720).  I had heard last month at a Jupiter Players recital this same movement in Brahms's famous transcription for piano but had not enjoyed it nearly so much as in its original form for violin.  Still, its worth quoting Brahms's thoughts on the Ciaccona if only to give an indication of the impact it has had on musicians since its rediscovery in the early nineteenth century (it was first published in 1802).
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
The recital ended with a selections from the 1970 Caprice Variations for Unaccompanied Violin by George Rochberg, a composer with whose work I had previously been unfamilar.  The full piece is made up of fifty-one variations of which eleven quote from the works of other composers (i.e., Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler and Webern). Those performed at this recital consisted of eleven selections from both the quoting and non-quoting variations.  In borrowing from the works of earlier composers, Rochberg joined a select group of twentieth century composers, the most notable of whom was Alfred Schnittke who set forth the rationale for this usage in his 1971 essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music."  I'd refer those seeking an in-depth analysis of the Variations as a whole to an exhaustive 2014 dissertation written by Hojin Kim at Florida State University that is currently available online.  For me, what was most interesting was that the piece was written in the latter part of Rochberg's career following the tragic death of his son Paul in 1964.  It was then that he rejected the serialist techniques that had formed the basis of his earlier music.  Rochberg apparently felt that serialism was too abstract a system to offer him any consolation in his time of sorrow and so turned to tonalism, the music that had traditionally offered a more profound link to the emotions.  He wrote:
"After Paul died, that absolutely made it necessary for me to wash my hands of the whole thing [serialism]... Music is the sound of the human heart, shaped and guided by the mind. It is the sounding of the human consciousness in all of its possible states of being."
Attending this recital was a rewarding experience both for the well thought out programming and for the high level of musicianship. It greatly enlarged my knowledge of the solo violin repertoire.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Sobeck, Mozart, Suk and Dvořák

On Monday afternoon, I went to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th to hear another Jupiter Players recital, this one consisting entirely of the music of Bohemian composers, among them Johann Sobeck, Johann Nepomuk Wendt (as transcriber of Mozart), Josef Suk and Antonín Dvořák.

The program opened with Sobeck's Duo Concertant on Themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Op. 5 (n.d., published 1880) for clarinet and horn with piano accompaniment.  To call this brief piece "obscure" would be to indulge in understatement.  When I attempted to research it, I could find literally nothing on it aside from its date of publication.  Nor on the composer either, for that matter, other than that he was a gifted clarinetist who composed exclusively for his own instrument.  It consisted of five movemnts that were skillfully arranged and highly enjoyable if only because Sobeck wisely chose so magnificent a source to draw upon.

Continuing along with little known adapations of Mozart's music, the first half of the program concluded with Wendt's arrangement of selections from Le Nozze di Figaro.  Wendt was not only a contemporary of Mozart but, as director of Joseph II's court Harmonie (i.e., wind band), pretty much outranked him in prestige.  His specialty consisted in the arrangement for winds of popular operas of the day.  He must have had a strong predilection for Mozart's music.  In addition to Figaro, Wendt created adaptations of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni.  It should be noted that while Wendt's original transcription of Figaro was scored for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, that performed at this recital called for flute, violin, viola and cello.  Why Wendt should have chosen to complete a second transcription that would not be playable by his Harmonie is unknown.  Most likely, Joseph II specifically requested it for some occasion at court.  In any event, the arrangement was excellent and captured very well the spirit of Mozart's sublime music.  It consisted of arrangements of the Overture and six of the best known arias.

After intermission, the musicians returned onstage to perform  the fourth movement in B-flat major of Suk's String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (1896, fourth movment revised 1915).  Suk was not a particularly successful composer, but he did have the sense to marry well.  It was primarily through the intervention of his father-in-law, Antonín Dvořák himself, that Suk's quartet was published in the first place, this after the older composer had informed his publisher Simrock that the work was "the best that I know by him [Suk]."  Interestingly, the fourth movement, that played here, has a history all its own.  As one source states:
"Suk re-wrote the fourth movement twenty years after its completion because he was dissatisfied with the original version. Despite his use of the same thematic material, the new version differs so substantially that this movement is frequently performed on its own."
That being the case, it's probably better to view the movement as a work entire in itself rather than as an excerpt from a traditional four-movement quartet.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 23 (1875).  The work was written shortly after the composer had won the Austrian Prize for the first time and was already on the brink of international fame.  It's not as often performed as the Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major written some fifteen years later, but it's nevertheless a delightful work that conveys very well the composer's Romantic inclinations and even at times hints at the sweeping melodies that were to characterize the much later String Quartet No. 12.  Though the Op. 23, especially in the final movement, sometimes displays the awkwardness of an artist still struggling to perfect his craft, it also demonstrates an early mastery of technique.  This can be heard in the nearly seamless integration of the piano and strings that allows them to speak with one voice rather than play against one another.  Beyond that, the second movement theme and variations, though simple enough, especially when compared with the Symphonic Variations written only two years later, stand out for their depth of feeling.  Some critics have seen in them the influence of Schubert's variations in the second movement of his Quartet No. 14; but Dvořák's variations, while admittedly tinged with melancholy, are not nearly so dark as Schubert's.  One could say that Dvořák still envisions the possiblity of deliverance, while for Schubert nothing awaits but annihilation.

As is usually the case at Jupiter recitals, the musicianship on Monday afternoon was superb.  Guest artists Drew Petersen, piano, and Mark Kaplan, violin, were both highly convincing when collaborating on the Dvořák quartet.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Met Museum: World War I and the Visual Arts

The Met Museum is marking the centennial of the First World War with a major exhibit entitled World War I and the Visual Arts.  The show's title to the contrary, there is little here of the traditional arts, i.e., painting and sculpture.  That's entirely appropriate, though, since the conflict had a lasting impact on virtually all forms of cultural expression.  The same early twentieth century technology that produced new types of weaponry also enabled new artistic media.  This was signified in the visual arts by the increased use of photography and those graphic arts that most readily lent themselves to mass reproduction, such as propaganda posters and even postcards.

The show has been allocated three large galleries that contain so many works among them that I had to view the exhibit twice in order to properly appreciate it.  The three are divided so that the first deals with the outbreak of the war, the second with its progress, and the third with its aftermath.  Taken together, they give the viewer some sense of what it must have been like to have lived through four years of hell.  When it began, most assumed the war would only last a few months.  Few could have imagined when the armies first mobilized in August 1914 that the world into which they had been born was about to vanish forever.  The works on view document artists' dawning awareness of the immensity of the conflict and the savagery with which it was fought.

As one would expect, it is in the first gallery that one finds images emphasizing patriotism and the glories of war.  In 1914, many, including a large number of artists, saw the war in a positive light as a means to achieve a lasting peace and a better world.  This optimism was particularly true of the Italian Futurists who glorified the mechanized weaponry that made the war so deadly and created casualties on a scale never before encountered.  The Futurists are represented here by several works by Gino Severini whose carefully constructed semi-abstract monochromes, such as Train in the City (charcoal, 1915), convey no hint of death.  But then there are graphic works by the British artist Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson that, while using Futurist techniques, show endless columns of troops marching blindly to their destruction.  Typical of these are Returning to the Trenches and Column on the March (both drypoints, 1916).  Other works, such as Pyotr Adolfovitch Otsup's photographs of Tsar Nicholas II reviewing his troops, are unintentionally poignant.  Only a short while after they were taken, the Tsar was overthrown and eventually murdered along with his family.

It is only in the second gallery that artists appear to have become fully cognizant of the war's horrors.  There are works here too by Nevinson, but in his lithograph Banking at 4,000 Feet and his drypoint That Cursed Wood, both from 1917, he has left far behind the Futurist effects he had previously employed.  In a like manner the great French painter Pierre Bonnard, one of the original Les Nabis, shows the devastation war brings to the civilian population in Dans la somme, village en ruines (colored chalks and watercolor, 1916), a scene echoed in Edward Steichen's 1918 aerial photograph of the bombed village of Vaux.  Perhaps the most horrific image, though, is George Bellows's 1918 lithograph entitled Bacchanale from War that depicts rampaging German soldiers callously bayoneting women and children in an unnamed village.  Ironically, Bellows had been against American participation in the war until informed of these German atrocities.

The final gallery that deals with the war's aftermath is dominated by German art.  This only makes sense since it was in Germany, riddled by unemployment and rampant inflation, that the war's aftereffects were most keenly felt.  Artists whose work is displayed here include George Grosz (War Drawing, ink on paper, 1917), Max Beckmann (Hell, eleven transfer lithographs, 1918-1919), Erich Heckel (Wounded Sailor, woodcut, 1915), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Umbra vitae, woodcut book illustrations, 1924), and Käthe Kollwitz (Gefallen, lithograph, 1920).

The exhibit concludes with a one of the greatest masterpieces of modern German art - Otto Dix's Der Krieg ("The War"), a set of fifty-one etchings that take up an entire gallery wall.  Dix was the only major German artist to have served through all four years of the war, and these etchings, so reminiscent of Goya's The Disasters of War in both style and execution, sum up the artist's ghastly remembrance of his time on the Western front.  They are unquestionably the most powerful works to have come out of the war and are among the most potent anti-war statements of all time.  One cannot view them without being completely overwhelmed by the lasting tragedy of this "war to end all wars."

The exhibit continues through January 7, 2018.