Friday, November 30, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Kim and Mendelssohn

Earlier this week I went to hear the latest instsllment of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall.  On this occasion the program was devoted to chamber music, specifically string quartets.

The recital began with a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806), the third of the "Razumovsky Quartets."  I have to admit that I always find it annoying when musicians elect to perform only a single movement of a given work.  In music, as in any other art, a creation must be taken as a whole if it is to be properly appreciated.  Presenting individual movements as stand alone pieces necessarily gives listeners an incomplete and sometimes distorted understanding of the composer's intentions.  If three complete works cannot be accommodated in a single program it would be far better, in my opinion, to perform only two and end the recital a few minutes early.

The next work was the world premiere of a string quartet entitled Shadowplay by Sunbin Kim, winner of the 2017 Gena Raps String Quartet Prize.  This was a highly interesting single movement atonal work, approximately 20 minutes in length, whose music often had a piercing quality in the upper registers.  The composer was present at the performance and attempted to say a few words to introduce the piece.  Unfortunately, he was not given a microphone and his remarks were largely inaudible.  According to his website, Sunbin Kim, who is also a pianist, is a graduate of Bard and is currently enrolled as an MM candidate at Juilliard.

Both the above pieces were performed by the Azure Quartet who were participants in the 2017-2018 Honors Chamber Music Program; the ensemble consists of K.J. McDonald and Brenden Zak, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello.

The final work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847).  To me, this is the most fascinating of Mendelssohn's works in any genre.  For the most part, his compositions are the refined and accomplished pieces, filled with light and engaging touches, one would expect of so cultured and cerebral a composer.  While undoubtedly works of genius, they are so utterly proper and carefully thought out that one sometimes feels the composer is wearing a mask behind which he hides his real feelings and emotions.  Not so, however, in the present work.  Titled "A Requiem for Fanny," the quartet was written immediately aftet the death of Mendelssohn's beloved sister, a tragedy that left the composer devastated.  It is nothing less than the final testament - Mendelssohn himself would be dead within two months after having completed it - of a highly cultivated man who has suddenly seen his carefully constructed world come crashing down around him.  Not only is it written in the dark F minor key, but its accentuations and tempos (some of which were later adapted by Shostakovich in his own F minor quartet, the No. 11) are filled with a sense of anxiety and dread that makes the work sound curiously modern.  One can hear the furious racing of the composer's heart as he confronts his own mortality.  Properly performed, the Op. 80 is a truly harrowing piece, a glimpse of a soul robbed of all its certainties and staring death in the face.  

The piece was performed by the Abeo Quartet consisting of Ludvig Gudim and Nijoma Grevious, violins, James Kang, viola, and Drew Cone, cello.  They are currently participating in the 2018-2019 Honors Chamber Music Program.

Monday, November 26, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Fauré and Rameau

On Saturday afternoon I went to David Geffen Hall for the second time within a week to hear the New York Philharmonic.  On this occasion the first half was given over chamber music while the second half featured selections from a rarely heard Baroque opera.

The program opened with the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1879, rev. 1883) by Gabriel Fauré as performed by orchestra members Sheryl Staples, violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, Carter Brey, cello, and guest artist Shai Wosner, piano.  This was a relatively early work by Fauré, although by the time he wrote it he was already a respected composer.  It was written during a time of personal anguish after his fiancée Marianne Viardot, daughter of the famous soprano Pauline Viardot, had broken off their engagement for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Also unclear is the impact, if any, that this disappointment had on the composition of the present quartet.  True, the third movement adagio has a definite air of melancholy, but then again this is not at all unusual in a slow movement and does not necessarily reflect the composer's own feelings.  If there were any reference to the breakup in the final movement allegro we will never know as the entire movement was thoroughly rewritten and the original destroyed.  Taking the music on its own merits, it is an interesting but certainly not profound work that places a great deal of emphasis on style, often to the detriment of substance.  It was played extremely well by all four musicians at this concert.  It's always interesting for me to hear orchestra members perform chamber music that allows their individuality to appear more clearly than when playing with the entire orchestra.

After intermission, the orchestra, led by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, returned onstage to perform the final work on the program, selections from the opera Dardanus (1739, rev. 1744) by Jean-Philippe Rameau.  Though already age 50 when he began his career as an opera composer, Rameau nevertheless stirred a great deal of controversy with his "avant-garde" style, that is, his refusal to compose in the same manner as his illustrious seventeenth century predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully.  In spite of this opposition, Rameau achieved a great deal of success and his works were regularly staged at the Paris Opéra.  While Dardanus was not an overwhelming triumph when it first appeared, the original production did have a respectable run of 26 performances, much to the chagrin of the lullists.

Dardanus is a tragédie lyrique, a particularly French form first introduced by Lully in the preceding century; in some respects the genre resembled opera seria in that it adapted its plots from classical mythology and emphasized the noble ancestry of its characters.  Dardanus follows the pattern as it relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, the ancestor of the Trojan people.  Perhaps the best description of the selections performed at this concert was that given in the program notes:
"Following the call-to-order of the Ouverture, the suite assembled here by Emmanuelle Haïm includes numerous winning examples of French dances — menuet, tambourin, gavotte, rigaudon — but even those formal types are crafted to their dramatic moments and are in no way stereotyped....  Also included are several symphonies, instrumental expanses that provided dramatic underpinnings to specific scenes: a celebratory Marche pour les différentes nations (March for the Various Nations...), the strutting Entrée pour les guerriers (Entry of the Warriors), the bristling Bruit de guerre (Noise of War), and the tender Sommeil... The suite concludes just as the opera does, with an extended chaconne..."
While the orchestral forces used in Wednesday evening's performance of Handel were, in keeping with the original eighteenth century instrumentation, quite slight and never amounted to more than a  modest chamber ensemble sometimes consisting only of strings, those employed for Dardanus were much closer in size to a modern orchestra and made use of a much wider array of instruments.

Emmanuelle Haïm, who was previously a harpsichordist with Les Arts Florissants, founded her own ensemble, Le Concert d'Astrée, in 2000.  This series of concerts marked her debut with the Philharmonic.  She displayed considerable skill on the podium; I was especially impressed by her work on the Dardanus suite which I found to be highly enjoyable and much more fun than one would expect of so serious a work.  Rameau's music did, in fact, sound extremely innovative and I could well understand how his contemporaries might have found it avant-garde.  

Friday, November 23, 2018

New York Philharmonic Performs Handel's Water Music

I began celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday a day early by attending a Wednesday evening performance given by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.  Conducted by Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm, the program featured the music of Georg Friedrich Händel, including two suites from that perennial favorite Water Music.

The program opened with Handel Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1 in G major, HWV 319 (1739).  The soloists on this piece were orchestra members Sheryl Staples and Qianqian Li, violins, and Carter Brey, cello.  While the two giants of the German Baroque, J.S. Bach and Handel, were both inspired by Italian music, they each followed different models.  Bach was most impressed by Antonio Vivaldi and went so far as to transcribe several of the latter's works for his own use; Handel, on the other hand, was most influenced by Arcangelo Corelli whom he had met while living in Rome years earlier.  Handel's publisher John Walsh was also a great admirer of Corelli and had already published that composer's Twelve concerti grossi, Op. 6 (1714).  It was not at all a coincidence then that Handel's concerti were also labeled Op. 6 by Walsh.  None of this, however, should be taken to imply that Handel's works were slavish imitations of those by Corelli.  Far from it.  Although Handel adhered to the general formula employed by Corelli in which solo instruments (concertino) interact with the larger ensemble (ripieno, or tutti), his concerti are highly individualistic and filled with drama.

The Concerto No. 1 consists of five movements, the first of which, marked a tempo giusto, is a reworking of an early draft of the overture to Handel's final Italian opera, Imeneo.  The other four movements, however, are entirely original and show the composer at his creative best.  This point was made quite strongly by Charles Burney in an appreciation of the fourth movement allegro that was reprinted in the Philharmonic's program notes:
"The fugue upon an airy pleasing theme, is closely worked and carried on from the beginning to the end without episode, or division foreign to the subject, and in a modulation strictly confined to the key note and its fifth: those who know the merit and difficulty of this species of composition can alone be sensible of our author’s resources and superiority, whenever fugue is in question."
The two Water Music suites performed next were the No. 3 in G major, HWV 350 and the No. 1 in F major, HWV 348.  Guest artist Sébastien Marq, a recorder virtuoso, was soloist on the Suite No. 3.  All three suites were premiered on July 17, 1717 by some thirty musicians in a barge on the Thames as they accompanied George I who was traveling in a separate barge from Whitehall to Chelsea.  Handel's association with George actually predated the arrival of either in London.  In 1710, shortly before he traveled to England, Handel had become Kapellmeister to George while the future king was still Elector of Hanover.  It was only natural then that once in England George should turn to Handel when he wished to impress his new subjects with his magnificence.  It was an excellent choice.  Other than Henry Purcell, the English had produced no significant native composers and Handel's festive suites, especially when performed in so unusual a setting, must have been without question the most exciting musical event London had yet witnessed.

Selections from Rameau's Dardanus were scheduled to be performed in the second half of the concert, but since they were to be repeated at a concert on Saturday afternoon that I also planned on attending I didn't bother staying to hear them on Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Andris Nelsons Conducts Mahler No. 5

On Monday evening WQXR broadcast live from Carnegie Hall a concert featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Andris Nelsons, performing works by HK Gruber and Mahler.

The program opened with Gruber's Aerial (1998-1999), a concerto for trumpet and orchestra that Gruber had written for Håkan Hardenberger, the trumpet virtuoso who premiered the piece in London in 1999 and who was also soloist at Monday evening's concert.  The work consisted of two movements representing aerial views of landscapes (hence the title) entitled respectively "Done with the compass—Done with the chart!" and "Gone dancing."  The first, a slow movement whose title was taken from the Emily Dickinson poem "Wild nights—Wild nights!," combined multiphonics, jazz and a cow horn.  The second movement was an imaginary aerial view of a planet from which all inhabitants had disappeared, leaving behind only a sign that read "Gone dancing."

As one could well conclude from the preceding, Gruber is something of a maverick in contemporary German music and has been hailed as the principal force behind the "Third Viennese School."  The work, complete with spacey sound effects in the early part, was highly accessible and was very well received by the audience.  The trumpet part, in particular, was for the most part mellow and even downright blusey at times.  To me, though, the work seemed more showmanship than music.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902). Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music. This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part. He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood. He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna." (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.) But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites. As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique. But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version. The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.  This deficiency was very much in evidence at Monday evening's performance.  I also found the rendition of the adagietto, beautiful as it is, too drawn out and ethereal for my taste.  Rather than an integral part of the symphony, it seemed here more a dreamlike interlude.

The archived performance is available for listening on WQXR's website.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Met Opera: Sondra Radvanovsky Sings Tosca

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Tosca, the lurid masterpiece created by Giacomo Puccini and libretttists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.  This was, of course, the David McVicar production that was surrounded by such scandal when it premiered last New Year's Eve after having lost almost its entire original cast as well as two successive conductors.  I have to admit that one of my reasons for attending was to see what all the fuss had been about.

In its original form Tosca was a drama written by Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, inarguably the most famous actress of the late nineteenth century.  It was, in fact, after having witnessed Bernhardt's performance that Puccini resolved to adapt the work.  Like the opera drawn from it, the play contained not only murder, torture and suicide but for good measure a tempestuous woman's revenge for sexual blackmail; it is this last element that has most riveted modern audiences.  Many attending the opera do not realize that Tosca's confrontation with Scarpia is taken largely intact from Sardou's play.  The Met program notes helpfully quote the play's dialog to make clear the connection:
"Ah, you abuser! You tormented me for an entire night, should I not thenhave my turn? She bends over him, staring at him eye to eye. Look at me, scoundrel. Ah, to delight in your agony, and dying by a woman’s hand, you coward! Die, wild beast, die despairing, enraged, die, die, die!"
Set on a specific date (June 17, 1800), both play and opera use the Battle of Marengo between French and Austrian forces as a background for the action onstage.  It's an interesting device, one that serves to intensify the action among the fictional characters as the forces of history swirl about them and provide a context for their personal dilemmas. The allusion would have been very familiar to the Roman audience attending the opera's 1900 premiere as Italy was then preparing to celebrate the battle's centenary, but its significance is largely lost on those seeing the opera today.  One would think that setting the opera on a given date would preclude any attempt to update the action, but that hasn't stopped several producers from trying. A 1986 production, for example, set the opera in 1944 Nazi-occupied Rome with Scarpia as chief of the Fascist secret police.

Perhaps Tosca's most important legacy is its contribution to verismo.  One doesn't ordinarily think of Puccini as a composer of verismo but it must be remembered that this opera was composed within ten years of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892) and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890).  Puccini was definitely astute enough to recognize a new trend in opera and to capitalize upon it.  It may have been this aspect as much as Bernhardt's performance that determined the composer to adapt Sardou's play in the first place.  Not only was the gritty action far more naturalistic than that in Puccini's earlier operas but the music too was far more raw and incorporated such non-orchestral sounds as church bells.

I had heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing the title role of Tosca several years ago and greatly enjoyed hearing her reprise it at this performance.  She is without question one of the finest sopranos now active - I've previously seen her triumph at the Met in Norma and in Donizetti's Tudor Queen operas - and she has rightfully become one of the company's brightest stars.  Her rendition of Vissi d'arte brought down the house on Saturday afternoon and even had one fan shouting for an encore.  Joseph Calleja, whom I heard sing the role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra two years ago, was excellent as Cavaradossi.  He sang exceptionally well, and his Act III duet with Tosca was truly touching.  Claudio Sgura was less successful in the role of Scarpia, the evil genius whose malignant presence drives the action forward much as Iago's did in Otello.  Finally, conductor Carlo Rizzi, hardly a household name, did a much better job on the podium than I had anticipated.  Perhaps the fact that he too had studied at the Milan Conservatory endowed him with an affiinity for Puccini's music.

The production by David McVicar was one of the most satisfying staged by the Met in recent years.  It was unapologetically opulent.  Strongly reminiscent, especially in Acts I and III, of the fondly remembered Zeffirelli production, it marked a return to the lavish settings beloved by conservative New York audiences.  Hopefully, the Met has at last given up on its ill advised search for "relevance" and returned to its core values.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin

Yesterday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall for the first time this season to hear a recital given by the school's Piano Performance Forum.  The recital featured four pianists who among them performed works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin.

The program opened with Ke Wang performing Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789), one of six written for the Prussian Princess Friederike.  It is the extensive use of counterpoint in both the opening and final movements that renders this sonata so difficult to perform.  As a program note from the Seattle Symphony states:
"A playful Allegretto born of a simple melody sets the music in motion. Once Mozart presents the tune he immediately adds a contrapuntal second theme constructed from rapid 16th-note triplets. This new motive appears in inverted form above the main theme, creating an example of expert double counterpoint, a nod to Baroque era polyphony. The composer had clearly absorbed old Bach’s rich fugal style that Mozart first fully explored in 1782 when Baron von Swieten, Imperial Viennese Court librarian, had lent the composer scores from his collection of music by the Cantor of Leipzig."
I had last heard this work performed almost exactly three years ago by virtuoso András Schiff in one of a series of recitals that featured the late sonatas of the four great masters of that genre - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820) as performed by Jansen Ryder.  This piece was the first of the master's three final sonatas and, together with the Diabelli Variations he wrote during the same period, the culmination of his thoughts on music composed for the piano.  In its structure, the Op. 109 differs so markedly from all the Beethoven sonatas that had preceded it that it is fair to call it revolutionary.  The first movement is extremely short, so much so that it has been suggested that the composer originally intended the work to consist of only the latter two movements and added this one on later.  The third movement is most unusual for a sonata in that it contains a theme and variations.  Beethoven wrote the piece at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis and it was obvious that he was moving into uncharted territory.  His inability to hear his own works or those of other composers had completely isolated him by this point from the world around him.  Terrible as it must have been to have been so afflicted, his condition can actually be seen as an advantage in the sense that he was free to move forward with the development of his own musical ideas without having to concern himself with popular taste or even the sound of his own works when played.  More than any other artist before or since, he was locked into the world of pure imagination and freed from any other considerations.  

This sonata too I had heard performed in 2015 by András Schiff in still another of his recitals featuring late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The series culminated the following year when Sir András peformed the very last sonatas by the same four masters. That performance turned out to be one of the most thrilling piano recitals I've attended at Carnegie Hall.

The next pianist to take the stage was Angie Zhang who proceeded to perform works by Beethoven and Debussy, respectively the Variations WoO 80 and the lyrical L'Isle Joyeuse.

Beethoven's works without opus number generally date from the earliest part of his career and for the most part represent youthful efforts that the composer did not consider worthy enough to be assigned a number, that designation being reserved for more important pieces.  The 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806), however, date from the middle period when Beethoven had attained full mastery of his talents and are roughly contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.  Although the variations certainly do not constitute a major work, it's not entirely clear why Beethoven held them in such low esteem.  They are actually quite powerful.

Debussy's L'isle joyeuse (1904) was inspired by a painting, Watteau’s enigmatic L’embarquement pour Cythère, that actually exists in two versions, the first completed in 1717 and the second the following year. Debussy was always seeking to promote French culture and would take this passion even further a decade later when his country confronted Germany in World War I. For example, his 1890 Clair de Lune was inspired by a poem by Verlaine who not so coincidentally also wrote another in praise of Watteau. There is more to Debussy's musical piece, however, than a mere a celebration of French culture. As the article in Wikipedia indicates, the painting depicts a fête galante and "celebrates love." And love was very much in the mind of the middle aged composer in 1904. He had secretly begun an affair with a banker's wife and had impetuously taken her on a romantic getaway to the island of Jersey where he revised the present work (hence the use in the title of the English "isle" rather than the French "île"). As in his orchestral work La Mer, Debussy in this piece invokes at points the movement of the sea. Far more than an impressionistic rendering of nautical sounds, though, this is an impassioned paean to illicit love as only a Frenchman could write.

The program closed with a very brief work by Scriabin, the wonderfully titled Poème satanique, Op. 36 (1903) performed by Armen Sarkisian.  The composer himself did not think highly of the work.  He complained to the critic Leonid Sabaneyev that it was "the apotheosis of insincerity. It is all hypocritical, false."  The work was written at the very end of the composer's first period when he was still very much under the influence of such Romantic composers as Chopin and Liszt, and this may account for the disdain he later felt for it.

Juilliard has an incredibly strong piano department, and the musicians at this recital demonstrated a high level of skill in performances of works that were without exception technically challenging.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel

It was a madhouse on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon as runners from the New York City Marathon and the families and friends who had come to cheer them on thronged the streets and avenues.  Since many streets had already been closed off due to security concerns, traffic was at an absolute standstill.  In spite of these hectic conditions a loyal group of classical music lovers somehow managed to make their way to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Omega Ensemble.

The first musician to take the stage was "Next Generation Artist" Astra Phoon, a ten-year old prodigy who proceeded to dazzle the audience with performances first of Fabel, No. 6 of Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) and then of Liszt's Au Bord d'une source, though the program failed to note which of the three versions was used.

The recital proper opened with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927). As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata. The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed. The No. 2 was an entirely different matter. This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel is masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano. This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another. But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting. Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. The work was performed by violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist David Fung.

The next work was another Schumann "fantasy piece," Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849), originally written for clarinet and piano but here arranged for cello and piano. Though Schumann was the first to coin the term fantasiestücke, the concept of fantasy was at the heart of the Romantic movement; its origins can in fact be traced back to the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The present piece fits the term very well. The first two movements are for the most part dreamy and ethereal but the third, marked Rasch und mit Feuer ("Fast and with Fire") spins off crazily as if the musicians were suddenly possessed. One thinks, of course, of Schumann's breakdown five years later and wonders if there is in this music a premonition of that calamity. On this piece pianist David Fung was joined by cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

After a brief intermission, all three musicians returned to the stage for a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808). Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work. At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors. He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn. The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante. But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone. This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems almost a mistake.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated. Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment. In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo. In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas. As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn. The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The Omega Ensemble has been in existence since the 1970's and consistently provides a high level of musicianship at its performances.  Sunday afternoon's recital was no exception.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the first installment of this season's Wednesdays at One, Juilliard's midday series of concerts and recitals at which promising musicians have an opportunity to display their talents.  On this occasion it was the solo piano music of Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff that that was featured during the hour-long recital.

The program opened with a performance by Sylvia Jiang of Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 (1722-1723).  The French Suites (a name never given the work by Bach himself) are a set of six keyboard suites, each of which contains several Baroque dance movements, written for instructional purposes during the composer's sojourn in Köthen. a period during which he wrote some of his most important works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.  The Suite No. 5 contains seven movements, the most famous of which is the gavotte.

There were several works by Chopin on the program.  The first was the lovely Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-1846) as performed by Alexander Yau.  The barcarolle form itself is derived from Venetian gondoliers's traditional folk music and is charactierized by a rhythm reminiscent of the sweep of oars through still waters.  Probably the most famous example of this genre is the hauntingly beautiful Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour that opens the third act of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

The next pianist to take the stage was Jun Hwi Cho who performed Haydn's two-movement Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:48 (1789).  Although short in length, the sonata contains some of Haydn's most original music as the composer here took advantage of recent improvements in fortepiano design.  The opening movement is a free form fantasia that employs Haydn's signature alternating, or double, variations while the second movement rondo is filled with the wit that would characterize his later works.  It's apparent from this sonata that Haydn was finding new confidence as a composer even before achieving the fame that accompanied his first visit to London two years later in 1791.

Rachmaninoff, one of the twentieth century's greatest composers for solo piano, was represented at this recital by four of his Op. 23 Preludes (1901-1903) - No. 1 in F-sharp minor, No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in D minor, and No. 5 in G minor - as performed by Aleksandra Kausman.  Though for obvious reasons Rachmaninoff's Preludes are often compared to those by Chopin, the two actually have little in common.  To me, Rachmaninoff's have always seemed to display deeper feeling; they are truly suffused with the spirit of Russian Romanticism.  I once heard Vladimir Horowitz play two of the Op. 32 Preludes (the G major and G-sharp minor) and thought them the high point of that long ago recital.  The Op. 23 G minor, composed two years before the others, is deservedly the best known of the earlier set.  The pervasive sense of melancholy in the central section never fails to move the audience. 

The program concluded with a performance by Biguo Xing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843).  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably Chopin's greatest achievement as a composer.

This was an excellent recital with an eclectic program in which the Romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff was nicely balanced by the Bach and Haydn selections. The Juilliard pianists were all extremely skilled and each drew a large round of applause from the audience.