Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The End

Now that the current classical music season has ended, at least for me, I've decided that this as good a time as any to stop blogging and devote more time to my other interests, particularly photography and creative writing.  Although I'll be leaving my published posts online, at least for the time being, I won't be adding any new ones.

I want to express my sincere appreciation to all those who've so faithfully followed my posts.  I'm extremely grateful for your loyalty and wish you all the best of luck in whatever you choose to do.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Schumann and Schubert

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the first of the Met Orchestra's annual end-of-season series.  The guest conductor was the inimatable Valery Gergiev leading the ensemble in a program tht featured works by two great Romantic composers, Schumann and Schubert.

The program opened with Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1845) with Daniil Trifonov as soloist.  Although Schumann waited four years before adding the final two movements, the piece was actually begun in 1841 as a one-movement fantasie for piano and orchestra.  It was at his wife Clara's urging that he eventually expanded the piece into a full three-movement concerto.  That and the fact that Breitkopf & Härtel refused to publish the piece without the concluding two movements that Schumann himself viewed primarily as a means of balancing the first. What is unusual is that although Schumann was married to one of Europe's foremost pianists, the work was one of the few concerti written during this period that was not intended as a virtuoso showcase in the manner of those composed by Chopin and Liszt.  Indeed, Liszt condemned the work as "a concerto without piano."  The concerto instead hearkened back to those of Mozart and Beethoven in its integration of the solo and orchestral parts.  Schumann was more successful in accomplishing this feat than one might have expected.  Though he was already experiencing severe psychological problems, as evidenced in his Symphony in C completed at roughly the same time, he was able to fully overcome these obstacles in both the concerto and the symphony.  Of the two, the concerto is by far the more successful work and has since deservedly become one of the most popular in the repertoire.  Certainly Schumann was one of the nineteenth century's greatest composers for piano, and in this work he was able to meld that talent with his formidable ability in symphonic writing, albeit in sparer form, to achieve a remarkable triumph.  Mr. Trifonov was extremely impressive on Saturday evening; after having seen him display his virtuoso fireworks on other occasions, I was honestly surprised that he was able to work so well with the orchestra as he did here.  Even though this concerto lacks any flashy virtuoso turns, the pianist still had ample opportunities to demonstrate his considerable skill at the keyboard.  Of all the performances at which I've seen Mr. Trifonov perform this was definitely the most satisfying.

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

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

The Met Orchestra is one of the world's great ensembles and under the expert direction of Valery Gergiev it had a chance to shine on Saturday evening, particularly in the second half of the program.  One couldn't have asked for a better performance of Schubert's monumental symphony.  One curious point I noted was that Mr. Gergiev eschewed the use of a podium in the second half of the program and instead stood on the stage floor on the same level as the orchestra.  I'd be very interested to learn why he did that.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Art Book Review: Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York

There have been many attempts to neatly tie Reginald Marsh to various movements of American painting from the Fourteenth Street School to the Regionalist and yet that with which he was really most closely aligned, in spirit if not always in style, was the Ashcan School whose influence had peaked a decade or more before Marsh created his most significant work.  Like John Sloan and George Bellows before him, Marsh was mesmerized by the teeming life that filled the streets of New York City.  Though himself of upper class origins (born in Paris to an upper middle class family and educated at Yale), Marsh was always attracted to the lower classes - subway riders, burlesque strippers, Bowery bums, and Coney Island musclemen.  These were his subjects of choice in a city suffering through the worst years of the Depression.

Several years ago, I saw an excellent retrospective at the New York Historical Society entitled Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York that had been curated by Barbara Haskell of the Whitney Museum.  It was one of the few major exhibits that had been devoted to the artist following his death in 1954.  On view were many of his best known works as well as those of other artists who were active during the Depression.  The exhibit was accompanied by a catalog which I recently purchased at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street, very near the Union Square location where Marsh once had his studio.

In developing his distinctive style, Marsh did not slavishly follow the Ashcan artists or other American realist painters such as Thomas Eakins but instead looked to old masters whose works he had seen and copied on his travels through Europe.  His great breakthrough came when he was introduced, by his friend Thomas Hart Benton, to the egg tempera process.  Used extensively by medieval and early Renaissance artists for panel painting, tempera had the great advantage of drying quickly, thus allowing Marsh to continuously apply brushstrokes to a given work without the necessity of first allowing the layers beneath to stand and dry.  As for content, Marsh's work was distinguished by crowding figures into the foreground against cityscape backgrounds.  With this technique, Marsh was able to convey the frenzied rush that filled the streets and sidewalks of New York.

The catalog contains several short but highly relevant essays.  The first of these, by Barbara Haskell herself, provides an overview of the artist's work and places him securely in the period of his greatest productivity.  It also furnishes the biographical details needed to understand his highly complex personality.  Even though Marsh's upper class background gave him entry to high society - his first wife was the daughter of Bryson Burroughs, at the time curator of painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - he was never at home in such a milieu and resolutely refused to paint those who were.  Taking the position that "well-bred people are no fun to paint," Marsh was repelled by the artificial manners of the rich if for no other reason than that "People of wealth spend money to disguise themselves."  One has to assume that this was, at least to an extent, a reaction against his father's career as a society painter.

The most interesting essay in the catalog is "Keeping the Carnival in Town" by Jackson Lears who details the manner in which the "anything goes" license traditionally granted revelers during Europe's carnival season became a permanent fixture in New York City during the Depression years.  Another essay by Sasha Nicholas investigates Marsh's use of photography to capture detail for his paintings while still another by Lance Mayer and Gay Myers provides and in-depth analysis of the materials and processes used by Marsh to create his works.

One unfortunate omission from both the exhibit and catalog are almost any examples of Marsh's graphic work. Marsh was extremely accomplished at etching and explored in his graphic work the same themes, and very often the same subjects, as in his paintings. It could be argued that certain scenes seeking to convey a sense of stark realism actually work better in graphic form, for example the 1932 Bread Line - No One Has Starved, the only graphic work that is reproduced in the catalog. To see more of Marsh's etchings, as well as engravings and linocuts, the interested reader should turn to the 1976 study The Prints of Reginald Marsh by Norman Sasowsky.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Art Book Review: Surrealism in Exile

Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School by Martica Sawin is quite simply one of the best art histories I've come across.  Not only is it well written but it's obvious that it's also been exhaustively researched to provide the wealth of detail contained within it.  Dealing with the period from 1938 to 1945, it traces the emigration to the United States and Mexico of European Surrealist artists fleeing the Nazis and their subsequent encounter with the young American artists who were later to form the nucleus of the New York School.  While this might seem a simple enough matter to chronicle, the huge number of artists involved, both European and American, and the complex personal and artistic interrelationships that existed among them actually make any attempt at a comprehensive survey extremely daunting.  Moreover, such a task requires an in-depth knowledge of modern art in the first half of the twentieth century and an ability to analyze and correctly evaluate individual paintings and sculptures.

Though its historic importance is largely forgotten today, Surrealism was the major cultural movement to arise in Western Europe, particularly in France, as a response to the carnage wrought by World War I.  At its most basic level, it was an attempt to replace traditional subject matter, now discredited by the insanity of total war, with a new approach to the arts, one linked closely to the expressions of the unconscious mind, already mapped by Freud at the beginning of the century, in the form of automatism.  This focus on the unconscious in turn greatly influenced the young American artists with whom the Surrealists came in contact and eventually led them to the breakthrough that became Abstract Expressionism, originally referred to as Abstract Surrealism.

The contribution of the Surrealists to their American counterparts was not, however, limited to the purely philosophical but also involved actual technique.  In the chapter "New York, 1941" there is a fascinating reproduction of a collaborative painting, the only surviving example of a series, in which the painters William Baziotes, Gerome Kamrowski and Jackson Pollock experimented in jointly dripping fast drying enamel paint on a canvas surface.  This obviously anticipated by more than a decade Pollock's famous drip paintings that were to become the the very avatars of American post-war art.  The idea did not, however, originate with these Americans.  Already in 1939 Gordon Onslow Ford, while working in his Paris studio with Victor Brauner, had tried his hand at the same technique, which he called coulage, using Ripolin enamel and had brought with him when he emigrated to New York the paintings he had created while using it.

At the center of the story (which, if he were alive today, he would consider his proper place) is André Breton.  Even if he were thoroughly irascible and a petty tyrant, Breton still deserves credit for holding together a band of temperamental artists in a cohesive school and for having the insight to understand intuitively their strengths and weaknesses.  This is all the more remarkable in that Breton and the other cofounders of Surrealism were not visual artists themselves but poets and writers.  There are also many other artists, such as Gordon Onslow Ford himself (as one of the last surviving Surrealists at the time the book was written he was able to give his account directly to the author and so secure for himself a more prominent position than he might otherwise have been allotted), who are little remembered today but who are here given their due in this book.  In addition, Sawin sheds new light on the development of such famous artists as Max Ernst, Leonora CarringtonYves TanguyAndré Masson, Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky while convincingly demonstrating the manner in which their distinctive styles evolved.

The passing of the torch from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism was also emblematic of the larger cultural shift that occurred after the end of World War II when the United States became not only the earth's greatest superpower but also its acknowledged leader in the arts.  Paris was replaced by New York City as the new world capital, a position it still holds today.  This transformation could not have been possible without the resources the transplanted Surrealists brought with them from Europe.  It was they who inspired the opening of many of New York's most prominent galleries, Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century foremost among them, that were later to be the first to showcase the works of the New York School.  

The one fault of this book is the quality of the reproductions.  These are rarely full page but more often in smaller format.  Worse, they are all monochromatic and have a murky appearance.  The absence of color makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate the quality of the original artworks and it's sometimes even difficult to decipher the content of the images shown.  There are, however, extensive notes and a voluminous bibliography.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Art Book Review: From Drawing to Painting

Pierre Rosenberg is an extremely accomplished scholar and art historian.  When it comes to the five artists - Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jacques-Louis DavidJean-Honoré Fragonard, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - who are the subject of From Drawing to Painting, few others are as competent to discuss their merits and faults.  As co-author of the catalogues raisonné of all five artists, whom Rosenberg considers "among the greatest of French draftsmen," he possesses an exhaustive knowledge of their lives and works.

The book itself is an adaptation of a series of A.W. Mellon Lectures given at Washington's National Gallery of Art in1996.  As such, the tone is informal and thankfully much less dry than one would expect of so erudite a scholar.  Moreover, both the book's excellent design and the inclusion of some 230 reproductions illustrating the author's arguments make the work fully accessible to laymen, even those possessing only a rudiementary knowledge of French art.

Rather than devoting a single chapter to each artist, the author has wisely chosen in each of the six chapters to address a specific problem by discussing the work of all five artists in relation to it. Thus, while the first chapter serves as an introduction to all five, the second, entitled "The Drawings: Their Histories, Techniques, and Themes," compares the five's drawings to one another, noting the similarities and differences in styles among them.  In this respect, it should be noted that the later artists were influenced, sometimes heavily, by their predecessors.  At times they even made copies of one another's works.  David, for example, was not only the teacher of Ingres but even found Fragonard employment at the Louvre when that artist found himself in dire straits.

Many of the issues addressed in the various chapters have applicability beyond the works of the five artists, and indeed of French art in general.  One particularly fascinating essay, "On the Attribution and Dating of the Drawings," has relevance to anyone interested in the process by which works of uncertain provenance are assigned to particular artists.  Forgeries, though rampant, are not the only problems faced by an author attempting a catalogue raisonné or a gallery owner preparing an exhibit.  In one instance, Rosenberg goes into a great deal of detail in explaing why in compiling the catalogue raisonné of Poussin's oeuvre, he and his co-author disallowed a large number of drawings formerly attributed to that artist, most notably a series of highly admired works that once formed part of the Crozat estate.

While the book is in general remarkably successful in educating its audience - I for one greatly enjoyed reading it - there remain a few quibbles.  For one thing, the title is somewhat misleading in its reference to painting.  Although several paintings by the five artists are discussed, it is almost always in relation to drawings that served as prepatory studies for the final works.  Throughout the book, emphasis is placed almost exclusively on the artists' drawings.  This is in itself not so great a drawback as long as the unwary reader does not anticipate any in-depth analysis of the painted works. 

The second problem has to do with the choice of artists.  After having only last year seen the two major exhibits of Delacroix's works at the Met Museum, I find it unforgiveable that so great an artist should have been entirely omitted from consideration here.  His absence seriously skews the study of the remaining five.  The famous rivalry between Delacroix and Ingres, for example, was representative of the conflict between Romanticism and neo-Classicism for ascendancy in nineteenth century French art.  Rosenberg himself is aware of the problem.  In the introduction he writes:
"Delacroix, I confess, does not inspire me.  I acknowledge his genius but it holds no attraction for me, and I do not understand him well (can we understand what we do not really appreciate?)."
An art historian, of course, is as entitled to his likes and dislikes as any layman.  Such a blatant disregard for one of the greatest French artists, however, cannot help but call into question the author's objectivity.

A final concern is the quality of the reproductions,  Though as noted above there are copious illustrations in every chapter, they are unfortunately all in monochrome.  Any consideration of the artists' use of color is thereby rendered moot.  This is hardly a minor point. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Art Book Review: Arcadia and Metropolis

Whenever modern art is mentioned, one invariably thinks first of France in the early part of the twentieth century.  Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism - these are the stuff of legend.  Rarely does anyone pause long enough to give a thought to Germany, even though two vitally important schools, Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, both originated there.  It is only when one makes this comparison that one realizes how successful were Hitler and his Nazis in their campaign to eradicate all traces of modernism from German heritage.

Few institutions bore the brunt of this cultural vandalism more directly than the Nationalgalerie Berlin's annex, the Kronprinzenpalais, which the Nationalgalerie had acquired following the fall of the monarchy at the end of World War I and which, under the directorship of Ludwig Justi, it had given over to the display of modern art, including a gallery of living artists (the Galerie der Lebenden).  On July 7, 1937, a commission led by Adolf Ziegler, the official in charge of the Reich Association of Fine Art, arrived at the Kronprinzenpalais and confiscated sixty-eight paintings, seven sculptures and a number of works on paper, all by Germany's most prominent modern artists.  Not content with these spoils, the commission next went to the Nationalgalerie's main building on August 12 and this time removed seventy-two paintings, twenty-four sculptures and hundreds of drawings.  When the museum's new director Eberhard Hanfstaengl refused to meet with the commission he was immediately replaced.  The works taken were then displayed at the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit held soon thereafter in Munich.  Many of these were subsequently lost, as was the case with Franz Marc's masterpiece Turm der blauen Pferde ("Tower of Blue Horses"), or else destroyed outright.

It was appropriate then that one of the earliest exhibits to be staged at New York's Neue Galerie consisted of works of modern art on loan from the Nationalgalerie which had done its utmost over the years to rebuild its ransacked collection.  The show consisted of paintings by the very same artists whose lives and careers had been so violently disrupted by the events of 1937,  Among the works displayed were Paula Modersohn-Becker's Kniende Mutter mit Kind ("Kneeling Mother with Child"), Max Pechstein's Am Strand von Nidden ("On Hidden Beach"), Emil Nolde's Pfingsten ("Pentecost"), Max Beckmann's Adam und Eva ("Adam and Eve"), Otto Dix's Altes Liebespaar ("Old Couple") and George Grosz's Grauer Tag ("Gloomy Day").  The highlights of the exhibit were a number of paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the finest of which was unquestionably one of his studies of Berlin streetwalkers, the 1914 Potsdamer Platz.  Kirchner was an especially tragic figure.  His mental health unbalanced by the virulence directed toward him by the Nazis, he committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938.  

While we must be grateful for these works, their relatively small number are a constant reminder of the extent of the Nazis' depredations.  One can't help imagining how much more extensive this show would have been if not for their pillaging.  There were no works on view, for example, by the aforementioned Franz Marc, not only a notable artist but a war hero who had perished on the front in 1916 while fighting for his country in World War I.

Arcadia and Metropolis: Masterworks of German Expressionism is the catalog published to accompany the Neue Galerie's 2004 exhibit.  It's an excellent work that carefully presents each of the paintings accompanied by a page of insightful analysis.  In addition, there are five essays that trace the development of modern art in Germany as well as a discussion of its most important critics, the establishment of the Kronprinzenpalais as a venue for the permanent display of these works, and finally a detailed chronicle of the shameful actions of the Nazis who could only destroy what they could not understand.  There are also two appendices, one of which reproduces four full color posters advertising relevant art exhibits held between 1904 and 1912, and the other containing detailed biographies of the artists whose work is reproduced within the catalog.  The volume is valuable not only as an art book but also as a visual history of what can occur when an entire nation loses its way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Art Book Review: The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, published to accompany a 2005 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, is one of the most delightful photography books I've come across in a long while. It's the first comprehensive study of which I'm aware to devote itself to the use of photography as a tool in parapsychological research and to trace the uneasy relationship between photographic science and spiritualist belief.

The book is divided into three sections - Photographs of Spirits, Photographs of Fluids and Photographs of  Mediums - and consists of a series of scholarly essays, each followed by reproductions that illustrate the content of the text.  This system is not always strictly adhered to.  The chapter on Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, is followed not only by the relevant photographs of the Cottingley fairies but also by the "skotographs" of Madge Donohoe who is nowhere mentioned in the essay.

The book's Foreword, written by Philippe de Montebello and Jean-Luc Monterosso, sets forth the academic rigor with which the subject is to be viewed:
"While the controversies over the existence of occult forces cannot be discounted, the approach of this exhibition is resolutely historical.  The curators present the photographs on their own terms,without authoritative comment on their veracity."
While such objectivity is in many ways admirable, it sometimes leads to unintended hilarity as when curators discuss obviously faked photographs in the same pedantic manner that might be employed in evaluating genuine works of art.  In such cases, a more skeptical tone would have served better.  Then again, some of the photos belong to the Met Museum's Gilman collection and the contributors might very well have considered it indiscreet to have labeled them outright deceptions.  What is remarkable is that spiritualist believers, when confronted by these same photographs, refused to believe the evidence of their eyes and insisted the phenomena recorded were real.  Even when photographers such as Buguet admitted to trickery, his supporters refused to accept his word for it.

On a technical note, it's interesting that infrared photography is mentioned only in passing, and then solely as a means of taking pictures in total darkness.  One would have thought that that film's ability to capture wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye would have made it a great resource for those attempting to capture the paranormal.

None of the photographers whose works are displayed in this volume were masters of their craft.  Far from it.  But while there's nothing shown here that remotely approaches the artistry of Man Ray, the entire book, when taken as a whole, can alternatively be viewed as an anthology of surrealist photography that rivals anything deliberately created by that movement in its self-conscious search for dreamlike imagery.  As such, many of these photographs possess and unintended beauty.  In the Fluids section, some of the representations are reminiscent of abstract art, a genre they prefigured by several decades.  Others have the charm of antique postcards from a Victorian sanitarium.  And in the end, this unintended artistry may represent the real value of the publication.  Thomas Mann, as quoted on page 177, derisively described the photographs taken of the medium Eva C. as "grotesque, fantastic and silly."  It is exactly that aspect which makes them worth viewing.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Peforms Schubert

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a  recital given by the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida that featured an all-Schubert program.  The three sonatas performed were from various points in the composer's career but all were of the highest quality.

The program opened with the Sonata in A Minor, D. 537  (1817).  This youthful work, written when the composer was only nineteen, is the first piano sonata he actually brought to completion.  It was here that he really discovered his own style when composing for the piano rather than simply following the examples of Mozart and Beethoven in imitative fashion.  This may in part be due to the fact that the composer had recently gained access to an excellent six-octave fortepiano on which to work out his musical ideas.  Still, the D. 537 is not a fully assured work.  Schubert's first three sonatas had all lacked a finale and that presented here is problematic, in particular in the long pauses that punctuate the movement.  Whatever the sonata's faults, however, it is nevertheless thrilling to hear the music of one of the greatest composers for the keyboard at so early a point in his career.

The next work consisted of the first two movements of Schubert's Sonata No. 15 in C major, D. 840 (1825). These were actually the only two movements Schubert troubled to complete. Like the more famous Eighth Symphony, this is an unfinished work, most probably because Schubert was not satisfied with it and put it aside. The work's nickname, Reliquie, was given it by its publisher, C.F. Whistling, in 1861 either because he honestly thought this was Schubert's final work or, more disingenuously, because he wanted to provide to his customers a plausible reason for its incomplete state. But even without the final two movements, this is still a major accomplishment, one that prefigures the late sonatas. The critic Donald Tovey claimed that the first movement was one of Schubert's two most perfect realizations of the sonata form.

After intermission, the recital ended with a performance of Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (1828). While listening to this magisterial work it's difficult to believe that Schubert's sonatas remained unappreciated and rarely played until well into the twentieth century. Even Schumann, who should have known better, had little positive to say about them. Today, of course, the late sonatas are recognized as being among Schubert's greatest creations, comparable in quality to Beethoven's own final works in the genre, and they have become mainstays of the piano repertoire. Taken together, these sonatas reflect the composer's awareness of the shortness of the time left him and convey a sense of resignation underlain by quiet grief. Their meditative aspect can be heard clearly in the opening movement of the D. 960 in which shifts in tonality create in the mind of the listener an illusion of traveling from familiar ground to an unknown destination. While the work may not have been intended by Schubert as a valedictory piece, there is nevertheless within it a keen awareness of individual mortality.

What I enjoyed most about the evening's program was that it featured works from the very beginning of Schubert's career through the very end. The audience was thus able to better understand his development as composer for piano over an eleven year period, an interval that comprised more than one-third of his tragically short life. While the D. 537 showed him still struggling to find his way, the D. 960 revealed him as a master of the medium. And certainly these seminal works could not have had a better performance than that given by Mitsuko Uchida, one of the finest pianists now active. As I've always considered her forte to be the works of Mozart and Schubert, she was on Saturday evening truly in her element . Her playing of the three sonatas can only be described as a revelation. This was without qualification the best recital I've attended this season.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Art Book Review: The Art of Zen

I had a copy of The Art of Zen, in an oversize softcover edition, lying around my apartment for years before I recently picked it up and read through it.  I hadn't had any great expectations - books on Zen and Eastern mysticism have become something of a cottage industry since the 1960's and are usually nothing more than lightweight overviews that offer no real insight into their subject but instead do as much as possible to obfuscate it.  This brief study by Stephen Addiss, however, contains a wealth of information regarding not only Japanese art and calligraphy during the Momoyama and Edo eras, when Zen had already ceased to be the primary form of Buddhism in Japan, but also a history and explanation of Zen practice during that same period.

Proceeding in chronological order, the book begins with a discussion of the origins of modern Zen art, zenga, at the Daitoku-ji Rinzai monastery in Kyoto where the fourteenth century monk Ikkyū had once practiced calligraphy.  Addiss argues that as the shogunate consolidated its power in the seventeenth century it deliberately promoted Confucianism, with its emphasis on the respect to be paid to filial and social obligations, over the Zen beliefs that had prevailed during the Muromachi era.  The author feels that this politically expedient move actually freed Zen from the duties and functions which its previous position as the state religion had imposed upon it.  Zen was consequently once again able to return to its original emphasis on individual enlightenment and make increasing use of art and calligraphy to accomplish this purpose.

In subsequent chapters, Addiss discusses the continuation of the Rinzai tradition from successive masters, each imparting to his pupils the direct communication of satori, the form of sudden enlightenment that is the ultimate goal of Zen practice.  He also devotes a chapter to the growth of the Obaku sect, characterized by its inclusion of aspects of other forms of Buddhism such as the Pure Land school, that first appeared in Japan when Chinese monks fleeing the Manchu invaders who had overthrown the Ming dynasty landed in Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners.  This was easily the most accessible school of Zen and soon became the most popular in Japan.

In each chapter Addiss discusses the most important monk/artists of the period under review.  An entire chapter is devoted to the life and art of Hakuin whom he terms the most important Zen artist of the past four hundred years.  In discussing the artists, the author furnishes a short biography that focuses on the individual's quest for enlightenment and the manner in which one finally attains it.  There is also an examination of each artist's style in both painting and calligraphy accompanied by high quality reproductions that illustrate not only the artwork but the character of the individual who created it.

One of the paradoxes of Zen is that while the state of enlightenment is undifferentiated, those who achieve it still retain highly distinctive personal styles in the art they subsequently create.  Addiss accordingly reviews some of the most common motifs to be found in Zenga - for example, representations of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Buddhism to China from India, or of the ensō, the empty circle that represents the void and by extension the enlightened mind - and shows how their representations differ from one artist to the next.

Addiss's book is important not only as an art history but as a text on Zen itself.  Along with Alan Watts's The Way of Zen, this is one of the best introductions available to the general reader when it comes to the meaning and practice of Zen, a subject very difficult for the Western reader to comprehend.  This is because Zen regards rational thought as the greatest hindrance to attaining satori, and the master deliberately moves in apparently illogical fashion to shock the novice into an awareness of a higher state of being.  While a true understanding of Zen cannot be obtained from reading this or any other book, a study of the art left by its practitioners does give some idea how an enlightened mind views the world about him.  Moreover, Addiss's writing captures something of this  spirit in his erudite yet genial approach that is never pretentious as it leads the reader into greater awareness of the meaning of Buddhism.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Art Book Review: Man Ray: Photography and Its Double

The irony of Man Ray's life was that while he is today almost universally regarded as one of the greatest twentieth century photographers, second only to Stieglitz in my own opinion, he himself wanted to be known as a painter.  Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, he came by his photography career almost by accident.  When he arrived in Paris in 1921, he found that it was his skill in photographing artwork (it had been to make a record his own art that he had first taken up the camera in New York) that was most in demand and gave him an entree into European art circles.  Unable to earn a living as a painter - he failed to sell a single work at his first show at Librairie Six - he instead became extremely successful on both sides of the Atlantic as a portraitist and fashion photographer.

It was through his photography and his experimental short films that Man Ray came to be associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, the two most important art movements in France between the World Wars.  He had already become friends with Marcel Duchamp while still living in America.  When Man Ray arrived in Paris he was met by Duchamp who thereupon introduced him to the leading avant garde artists residing in the city.  Afterwards, Man Ray lived more or less a double life that could only have been possible in the French capital.  On the one hand, he found great commercial success through his fashion and portrait work while on the other hand he was respected as one of the leading Surrealists.  The two different strands of his life came together in his photographic work.  His fashion photos very often contained artistic elements that raised them above the use for which they had been intended, and his art photography benefited from the commercial skills he had mastered.  This continued until the outbreak of World War II when Man Ray was forced to flee the Nazis and returned to America at which point his career as a photographer came to an abrupt end.

There are a number of art books on the market dealing with Man Ray's photography, but Man Ray: Photography and Its Double is the best I've come across.  It was compiled in 1998 to accompany an "external exhibit" organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris during its renovation.  (I saw the exhibit at ICP here in New York City and was impressed by its inclusion not only of the photographer's final prints but of his contact sheets as well.)  The catalog consists of a number of essays by different scholars, including Serge Bramly, but at its heart are those by Emmanuelle de l'Ecotais who reviewed the Man Ray archives, including thousands of his negatives, that had been acquired by the Centre after a settlement with the estate of the photographer's widow Juliet in lieu of payment of estate taxes.  De l'Ecotais's access to the negatives and contact sheets provided her with a unique perspective that sometimes contradicted the artist's own account.  For example, Man Ray had always claimed that his portrait work was unretouched;  in actuality de l'Ecotais found evidence of substantial negative retouching done as a matter of routine in order to produce the desired effect.

In addition to providing an overview of Man Ray's fashion and portrait photography, the essays also provide welcome information on the more esoteric aspects of his photography, principally the Sabattier Effect and the Rayographs.  Though Man Ray was not the first to have discovered these processes, he used them carefully to bring a new level of artistry to his work and to express his vision in new ways.  In this regard, an essay by Michel Sanouillet traces artistic implications of the relationship between Man Ray and Duchamp.  Finally, there is an interview with Lucien Treillard, the photographer's friend and assistant for the last fifteen years of his life. 

One of the best features of the book is the variety of the images shown, all of them beautifully reproduced.  Over his lifetime, Man Ray had carefully selected for public display the photographs by which he wished to be remembered.  While that selection contained his best and most iconic works, it represented only a small fraction of his total oeuvre.  In contrast, this book, though it shows all the favorites, also has a large number of images with which I had previously been unfamiliar and which are well worth viewing.

This book is not by any means a biography.  Those wishing to learn more about the photographer and his work should read the 1988 study by Neil Baldwin entitled Man Ray: American Artist.  It's an excellent account of the career of one of the greatest artists this country has produced.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Art Book Review: Possessing the Past

Possessing the Past: Treasures of the National Museum, Taipei was published as a catalog to accompany an exhibit held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1996 that featured an incredible display of masterpieces of Chinese art taken from the collection of the National Museum in Taipei.  These works were originally brought to Taiwan by Chiang-Kai Shek when he fled China in 1949 and represent the collection first amassed by the Ch'ing dynasty emperor Ch'ien-lung.  So many masterpieces from all periods are included in it that the catalog's authors are able to present a systematic overview of Chinese art from the neoltithic period through the founding of the Chinese republic in 1911.

The book proceeds chronologically with a section devoted to the art of each of the major dynasties.  In total, there are twenty-four essays written by noted scholars including Wen C. Fong and James C.Y. Watt, the book's two attributed authors.  Each essay is illustrated by splendid full color reproductions of the works included in the exhibit as well as smaller black & white reproductions of works not included but referenced in the essays.  In addition, there are notes, a bibliography and maps.

The essays are scholarly but easily accessible to anyone with a serious interest in Chinese art.  Though written by different authors, they follow one another seamlessly and avoid the erratic shifts in point of view that sometimes blight such anthologies.  An excellent feature common to all the essays is the in-depth analysis of each major work in the exhibit.  The reader is not only given a short biography of the artist but also a background to the creation of the work that includes any symbolism, political or otherwise, the artist may have employed.  Most importantly, the work is presented in context, i.e., the authors are careful to show how an idividual artist's style developed in relation to that of his contemporaries and how that style fit in with the reigning dyanasty's aesthetic principles.  This is particularly important since virtually all the artists discussed belonged to a particular school, some of which were quite loosely organized while others were formalized into "academies" during the Sung and Ming dynasties 

While every period of Chinese history produced artists of note, the high point of Chinese art was unquestionably the landscape painting of the Sung dynasty, both the monumental work of the Northern Sung and the more imtimate creations of the Southern Sung.  Although a politically troubled period that ended with the eventual victory of the Mongol invaders, it was during this same time that Chinese civilization reached its peak.  One can only look in awe at such works as Early Spring by Kuo Hsi or Listening to the Wind in the Pines by Ma Lin.  So pervasive was the Sung influence that only recently has it been recognized that many later Ming paintings have for centuries been incorrectly attributed to Sung artists.

Although the focus is naturally on painting, there is also great attention paid to calligraphy which in China has long been elevated to the status of a high art, if not the highest.  In fact, painting and calligraphy are closely interrelated, and it's not at all surprising that some of the greatest Chinese painters were also master calligraphers.  The association between the two arts is emphasized in such essays as "The Scholar-Official as Artist" in which author Wen C. Fong details the connection between the ink-bamboo paintings of Northern Sung artist Wen T'ung and the calligraphy of his contemporary, the poet Su Shih.  As another Sung scholar Hsien-yü Shu later wrote, "There is calligraphy in the painting, and painting in the calligraphy."  Certainly, calligraphy permitted as much freedom of expression as painting.  The reader has only to view at the work of the T'ang Buddhist monk Huai-su, known as the "Sage of Cursive Calligraphy," to understand the scope calligraphy permitted for individual styles and even idiosyncrasies.

There are also essays devoted to the applied arts.  In the section devoted to the Ming dynasty, for example, there is a long essay entitled "Official Art and Commercial Art" by James C.Y. Watt that discusses the exquisite porcelains of that era that are now so prized by Westerners.

Possessing the Past is one of the finest art histories I've come across.  I cannot recommend it too highly to anyone interested in Chinese art, or for that matter in art in general.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Art Book Review: Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon

Even if not so well known to Westerners as his predecessors, Hiroshige and Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was arguably the greatest of Japanese ukioy-e artists.  Certainly it was largely through his artistry that the woodblock print form continued to flourish in the tumultuous era of the Meiji Restoration when important elements of the Japanese cultural tradition were discarded wholesale amid the rush to adopt everything Western.  If not for his efforts, ukiyo-e might in the late nineteenth century have existed only in a debased form devoid of the meticulous craftsmanship that had hitherto characterized it, if indeed it did not disappear altogether in favor of photography and other European methods of pictorial representation.

As might be expected, Yoshitoshi himself was a highly complex individual.  Born in the last years of the Edo Period, he was caught in the power struggle that enveloped Japan after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate.  The strife was not only political but cultural as well in that an entire way of life that had remained frozen during the centuries the country had been cut off from the outside world suddenly crumbled in the face of forced Westernization.  This radical change in direction had profound psychological consequences for the Japanese; they could no longer be sure of their own identity.  To continue to practice a traditional art form in such circumstances amounted to an act of defiance in its refusal to relinquish what was best in the Japanese spirit.

Yoshitoshi paid the price for his courage.  A student of the master printmaker Kuniyoshi, it took him years to achieve even a small amount of success.  During this time Yoshitoshi experienced such grueling poverty that his mistress Okoto sold herself to a brothel in order to support the artist with her earnings.  It was during this period that Yoshitoshi produced his most sensationalist work, such as the notorious Eimei nijūhasshūku ("Twenty-eight famous murders with verse").  Filled with violence and depictions of ghosts and demons, these works reflected well the discordant nature of the times.  Though Kuniyoshi had also treated this same supernatural subject matter (see, for example, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre), nothing could compare with the savagery with which Yoshitoshi invested such works as Saijiro Kills Kohagi.  In the end it all became too much for Yohsitoshi and in 1872 he suffered the first of his two mental breakdowns.

Tsuki hayakushi ("One Hundred Aspects of the Moon") comes from a much later period in Yoshitoshi's life when he had finally achieved a measure of security and critical success and had settled down long enough to marry Sakamaki Taiko, a former geisha who already had two children.  Even though in 1885, the year he began work on Tsuki hayakushi, he produced his most horrific print, The Lonely House on Adachi Moor, the new series was far gentler and more contemplative in nature.  Filled with scenes from Japanese history and folklore and held together only by the constant motif of the moon, Tsuki hayakushi can be seen as an elegy to the old Japan that was on the point of vanishing forever.  Into it Yoshitoshi poured everything he had learned of art, and the resulting work is a masterpiece of technical skill.  Thus, at the very end of its existence, ukiyo-e achieved its greatest triumph.

John Stevenson's guide to Yoshitoshi's penultimate work - the artist suffered a second mental breakdown after completing the final images and then died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after having been released from the hospital - is a delight for anyone with an interest in Japanese art.  It begins with a long biographical essay that traces Yoshitoshi's life and development as an artist at the same time that it outlines the  historical events that occurred about him, a knowledge of which is essential to understanding any of the works created by this artist.  This section is profusely illustrated with small color reproductions of Yoshitoshi's most important works before beginning the present series.  There follows a short essay on the publication of the series and the technical details of its production along with a timeline of Japanese history and even a map showing the locations of the artwork's settings.  After this comes the catalog itself.  Each of the prints is exquisitely reproduced in large format on its own page.  Facing each is the story the print illustrates and detailed attention is paid to the iconography contained within it.  Stevenson has a scholarly knowledge of his subject and great erudition, but his style is never pedantic.  It's obvious throughout the book that he has sincere affection for Yoshitoshi and very much enjoys relating the stories behind each of his prints.  As a result, Stevenson's writing is thoroughly intelligible, even when dealing with the most arcane matters, and makes Japanese history come vibrantly alive for the reader.

As for the prints themselves, my favorite is one entitled Genji yugao no maki that illustrates a particularly poignant episode from Murasaki's classic Genji monogatari.  It should be noted that the coloring of the print in Stevenson's book is much more subtle than in many of the examples shown online.  That might mean that they are from later impressions when production standards were not as high.  Stevenson generally chose the earliest impressions available for reproduction in his book.  Another coloring change, usually in bright oranges turned brown, came about as a result of oxidation of the ink pigments over the years.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

WQXR/Carnegie Hall: Budapest Festival Orchestra Performs Bluebeard's Castle

After having attended a concert on Friday evening given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Iván Fischer I tuned in Saturday evening to WQXR, New York City's classical music station, to hear a live broadcast of another all-Bartók program that featured the same ensemble.  Once again, Maestro Fischer seemed intent on displaying to the audience as many facets of the composer's genius as possible.

The program opened with performances of  the Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, BB 68 (1915) and the Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz. 71, BB 79 (1914-1918).  As is well known, Bartók was not only one of the twentieth century's greatest composers but he could also lay claim to being the world's first ethnomusicologist.  Together with his fellow composer Zoltán KodályBartók traversed the Central European countryside in the early years of the twentieth century recording the regiou's indigenous folk music before it was lost to modernization.  It was from these recordings that Bartók derived the two present pieces.  They were not, however, simply transcriptions of those recordings but rather were reimagined by the composer in his own idiom.  In order to demonstrate the degree to which the original Romanian Folk Dances were reworked by the composer, Maestro Fischer had the orchestra first perform the original dances, even going so far as to make use of the traditional folk instruments that had originally accompanied them, before then playing Bartók's own interpretations.  The conductor did something very similar with the Hungarian Peasant Songs but in this instance brought onstage a Hungarian folk singer, Márta Sebestyén, to sing several of the original songs before the orchestra again went on to Bartók's arrangements.   In both cases it was extremely enlightening to hear the degree to which Bartók adapted the originals and transformed them into something entirely new.

After intermission, the program concluded with a concert performance of the one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle, Sz. 48 (1911-1912, rev.1917) featuring bass Krisztián Cser as Bluebeard and mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi in the role of his latest bride.  This dark work is a thoroughly modern piece whose intensity owes as much to the psychological depth of its libretto as it does to Bartók's fascinating score. The Prologue makes this clear when it asks: "Where is the stage: outside or within, Ladies and Gentlemen?"  As Judith moves from one locked room to the next, the listener understands her horror as she penetrates ever deeper into Bluebeard's subconscious and forces him to reveal to her his innermost secrets.  The use of only two characters heightens the drama and at times creates an almost unbearable sensation of claustrophobia.  The audience begins to feel that they too are confined with a protagonist who may very well be a sadistic madman.  Even if the sinister overtones of sex and violence are never made explicit - the work was, after all, written in 1912 - they still lurk in the shadows and contribute to Judith's growing trepidation.  All the while, Bartók's music enhances the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding.

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

While Bluebeard's Castle is undeniably one of the greatest operatic works in the twentieth century repertoire, I did not think it a good choice for a radio broadcast.  Without being able to see a staged version, or at least the supertitles available to the Carnegie Hall audience, this was an extremely difficult piece to follow, all the more so as it was performed in the original Hungarian.  All the radio audience had to go on was the brief synopsis given by the station's hosts.  At any rate, the archived performance is currently available for listening on WQXR's website.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Carnegie Hall: Budapest Festival Orchestra Performs Bartók

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear an all-Bartók program at a concert given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the direction of its Music Director, Iván Fischer.  This was a rare treat as I've always considered this ensemble the foremost interpreters of the great mondernist's music.

The program opened with the suite from The Miraculous Mandarim, Op 19 (1918-1924) that was for me the highlight of the entire concert.  Most concert suites are arranged by their composers after the original works from which they derived had achieved success.  Of this piece, the opposite was true.  So brutal and horrific was the full ballet that it was banned in Germany after its premiere in Cologne, and Bartók found it highly difficult to find other venues that would agree to produce it.  Not only was the plot, taken from a story by the composer's compatriot Melchior Lengyel, truly disturbing in recounting the tale of a victim lured to his death by a prostitute, but the accompanying music was itself appropriately dark and brutal.  At the time of its first performances, it was compared to Stravinsky's "barbaric" ballet music for Le Sacre du printemps.  For those seeking solace in classical music after having just experienced the horrors of World War I it was too much.  Of course, it is exactly the sense of horror expressed so well by the music that makes it attractive to modern audiences.  Filled with dissonance and making use of virtually every modernist technique Bartók could lay his hands on, this is really the soundtrack of a nightmare and, along with the equally dark Bluebeard's Castle, one of the composer's greatest achievements.  It celebrates a world that has grown seriously out of joint and given over to mindless violence and in so doing explores the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind.

The next work featured the Cantemus Choir led by Chorus Master Dénes Szabó and consisted of selections from Twenty-Seven Two- and Three-Part Choruses, BB 111 (1935).  As Maestro Fischer explained to the audience, Bartók was not only a composer but an educator as well and wrote these pieces for children's choir as a means of furthering young students' knowledge and appreciation of music.  Six songs - "Suitor," "Courting," "Jeering," "Enchanting Song," "Regret," and "God be with you!" - were performed a cappella and seven - "Hussar," "Wandering," "Loafers’ Song," "Don’t leave here!," "Don’t leave me!," "Bread-baking" and "Boys’ Teasing Song" - with the accompaniment of a "children's orchestra" whose part was here taken on by members of the BFO itself.  By the time he composed these songs Bartók, considered the world's first ethnomusicologist, had been studying and recording for decades the folk music of his native Hungary.  Here he took texts from this traditional folk music (but did not hesitate to change the wording wherever he saw fit) while freely adapting them to his own original compositions.  Though these compositions were of course also deeply influenced by folk music, they shared other sources as well.  Most notable among these, surprisingly, was the Renaissance music of Palestrina, a master of polyphony.  As a result, the songs possessed an antique flavor strongly reminiscent of centuries old ecclesiastical music.

The program closed with a performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943). The work, originally commissioned by Koussevitzky at a time when the composer was ill and badly in need of financial assistance, was so titled because each section of the orchestra is called upon at one point or another to take the part of soloist. This is a colorful work that sums up many of Bartók's concerns as a composer - from the folk melodies in the second movement, to the use of "night music" in the third movement to the dance rhythms in the final movement.  Despite the Concerto's complexity, the music is highly accessible to the point where this has become one of the composer's most popular works.

Friday evening's performance was the first of two devoted entirely to the music of Bartók whose accomplishments were so diverse that a single evening's performance would never have been able to do them justice.  Certainly these works could not have received better or more loving treatment than they were given by this ensemble.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Mozart Piano Concerti

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a concert given by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra that featured the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida conducting as well as performing as soloist on two late Mozart concerti that, although written only a year apart, were of highly different character.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459 (1784).  In contrast to the D minor concerto played later in the concert, the K. 459 is a fairly lighthearted work and perhaps for that reason is not played so often as the composer's other concerti.  Mozart himself thought highly enough of it to perform it at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emporer Leopold II in 1790.  Despite its cheerful nature the concerto is nevertheless a highly complex work, not least in the extensive use of counterpoint in the final movement.  One interesting point is that Mozart, when entering the concerto in his catalog, called for the use of trumpets and tympani which was highly unusual for works he composed in the key of F major.  As it is, no written parts have ever been found for these instruments.

The next piece was Berg's  Lyric Suite (1926).  Although the abstract theoretical nature of the twelve-tone system might lead one to believe that its adherents were a group of dry academics, nothing could be further from the truth.  The private lives of these composers sometimes resembled a soap opera in their romantic entanglements.  In this case, though Berg nominally dedicated his Suite to Alexander von Zemlinsky from whose Lyric Symphony he had taken the title of his own piece, the work actually had a secret program and dedication to the married Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of Franz Werfel, at whose home in Prague Berg had been a guest.  In the annotated score which Berg presented to Hanna, he wrote:
"It has also, my Hanna, allowed me other freedoms! For example, that of secretly inserting our initials, HF and AB, into the music, and relating every movement and every section of every movement to our numbers, 10 and 23. I have written these, and much that has other meanings, into the score for you. ... May it be a small monument to a great love."
It was in 1928 that Berg arranged for string orchestra the second, third and fourth movements of the six-movement quartet.  As one might gather simply from the names of the movements (Andante amorosoAllegro misterioso – Trio estatico; and Adagio appassionato), the music is highly dramatic.  By abridging the content of the original quartet Berg heightened this drama even further.  At this concert, the piece did not really have any connection to the Mozart music that came before and after it and I suspect was included principally to provide "padding," but it was nonetheless given an excellent performance and was highly enjoyable to hear.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (1785).  At the time Mozart composed the K. 466 he was at the height of his popularity in Vienna.  The concerto is actually the first of a several written for a highly remunerative series of subscription concerts.  In 1785, he would write two more, the K. 467 in C major (actually composed the same month as the K. 466) and the K. 482 in E-flat major, while in the following year he would pen the K. 488 in A major, the K. 491 in C minor, and the K. 503 in C major.  Taken together, all of them masterpieces of the genre, these constitute one of Mozart's greatest achievements as a composer.  Of them all, however, the K. 466 was the only one whose popularity was to endure into the nineteenth century's Romantic era.  It's easy to see why this would be the case.  Despite Mozart's new found prosperity, it's a stormy work whose dark musings could not fail to appeal to the Romantic temperament.  This is especially true of the finale, a tempestuous episode that moves from the home key of D minor to G minor before at last finding resolution in the key of D major, a change so abrupt it reminds one of the sun suddenly appearing as the storm clouds that have obscured it finally break.

The first half of Friday evening's concert was highly enjoyable, but it was in the second half that the performance rose to a new level. Mitsuko Uchida is one of the finest interpreters of Mozart's piano music now active, and both she and the orchestra were superb in their rendition of the D minor concerto. The work's continuing popularity - Beethoven routinely included it in his own concerts - is no accident, but it is only in the hands of the most gifted musicians such as Ms. Uchida that its genius can be fully appreciated.

I was fortunate to have attended this concert in person, but it was also broadcast live on WQXR.  The archived performance is currently available for listening on the station's website.

Monday, March 25, 2019

WQXR/Carnegie Hall: Hagen Quartet Performs Dvořák, Widmann and Mozsrt

On Friday evening WQXR, New York City's classical music station, broadcast another recital live from Carnegie Hall, on this occasion from its smaller stage at Zankel Hall.  The featured musicians were the Hagen Quartet - consisting of Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt, violins, Veronika Hagen, viola, and Clemens Hagen, cello - joined by clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann.

The program opened with four selections - "I know that on my love," "Death reigns," "Here gaze I" and "Nature lies peaceful" - from Dvořák's The Echo of Songs, the composer's 1887 arrangements for string quartet of  twelve songs taken from his 1865 cycle Cypresses.  The original song cycle, written when Dvořák was only 24 years old, was not only a youthful first attempt at composition but was also an intensely personal expression of romantic yearning for his pupil Josefína Čermáková who would eventually become his sister-in-law.  While it was understandable that Dvořák never wished to publish these early songs in their original form during his lifetime (they were, in fact, not published in such form until 2008),  he nevertheless retained a sentimental fondness for them and finally reworked them more than twenty years later into the instrumental movements heard at this recital.  Though the songs, more passionate than accomplished, only hint at the genius the composer would display in his maturity, they are much more polished than they first appear.  They also reveal even at this early date Dvořák's deep interest in Czech folk music.

The next work was the American premiere of a new work, a clarinet quintet by Jörg Widmann that had been co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall.  The last time I heard a work by Mr. Widmann was two years ago when I attended a recital given by the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida in which she performed a 2016 piece by Mr. Widmann entitled Sonatina facile, a work inspired by Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 that was also performed by Ms. Uchida at the same recital.  While the clarinet quintet performed on Friday evening did not, as far as I know, claim to take its inspiration from Mozart's K. 581, the very fact that it was placed on the same program with it more or less demanded that comparison be made between the two works.  And therein lay the problem.  No matter how talented a contemporary composer may be, it is highly doubtful that his or her work will possess even a fraction of the genius contained in a Mozart composition, whether it be a piano sonata or a clarinet quintet.  In this instance the quintet turned out to be a highly accessible neo-Romantic piece with some New Age sound effects in the higher registers.  Not surprisingly, a great deal of weight was given to the clarinet part.  The audience enjoyed the performance immensely.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Mozart's late Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (1789).  This was one of Mozart's most sublime achievements and without doubt the finest work ever composed for clarinet.  1789 had been a very difficult year for Mozart - he was in dire financial straits and suffering from depression - and one wonders if it were the tribulations the composer was then experiencing that inspired him to his best efforts.  As H.C. Robbins Landon wrote in Mozart: The Golden Years:
"If there is any one work that sums up this unhappy year, this [K. 581] must be it – parts of it seem to reflect a state of aching despair, but the whole is clothed not in some violent minor key, but in radiant A major. The music smiles through the tears…"
The quintet was written for the virtuoso Anton Stadler who performed it at its Vienna premiere on an extended range basset clarinet.  As the Wikipedia article points out, the instrument used by Stadler differed significantly from the standard Viennese basset horn.  It was only in 1992, when illustrated programs from recitals given by Stadler in Riga in 1784 were found, that the appearance of this clarinet could be determined.

Jörg Widmann is an amazing clarinetist, a true virtuoso, and the Hagen Quartet a brilliant chamber ensemble.  Their combined talents came together wonderfully in the performance of the Mozart quintet.  It was definitely one of the finest renditiions of this popular masterpiece I've been fortunate enough to have heard.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Met Museum: The Tale of Genji

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated, celebrates the eleventh century novel authored by Murasaki Shikibu that has for over a thousand years been considered the greatest single work of Japanese literature.  As such, Genji monogatari has over time become so central to the development of Japanese culture that it is impossible to overestimate the importance it holds for the people of Japan.  The book has inspired countless works of art, only a selection of which could be fitted into this exhibit.

As one might expect, a large number of items on display are devoted to the calligraphy with which the novel was written.  In the Heian period, the use of written Chinese characters was reserved exclusively for men.  Accordingly, Genji was written in native Japanese kana script.  Although the text written by Murasaki herself has long since been lost, there are numerous early examples of handwritten manuscripts notable for their fine calligraphy and artwork.  These were painstakingly inked on mulberry paper and bound into booklets, each containing a single chapter of the vast work.

The large number of artworks shown consists of handscrolls, folding screens, ukiyo-e (including two by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi taken from his masterpiece One Hundred Aspects of the Moon) and even twenty-first century manga prints by Yamoto Waki, all of which illustrate famous scenes from the novel.  In addition, there are handicrafts such as lacquered writing boxes, tea bowls, incense burners, kimonos, and even an authentic bridal palanquin, though almost all these are of much more recent date.

While all the works shown at the exhibit are worthy of attention, if I had to choose a single work for closer examination it would be a 1631 pair of six-panel folding screens entitled Miotsukushi ("Channel Markers") and Sekiya ("The Barrier Gate"), both of which are National Treasures, by renowned Edo artist Tawaraya Sōtatsu. As the museum's website states:
"This pair of screens has long been considered a masterpiece within the history of Japanese art. Most notably, they reveal an artist freely reinterpreting the tradition of Genji painting, not merely by adapting miniature-style painting to large-format screens but also by transforming the visual language of Genji illustration through simplification, clear-cut geometry, and an emphasis on materiality. Each episode represents a chance encounter between Genji and a former lover, and both scenes employ gates related to travel and pilgrimage, which perhaps led to their pairing here. Recent research shows that the screens were made in 1631; as one of only two securely dated works by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, they are crucial for understanding the artist’s still relatively enigmatic biography."
As for the novel itself, I reviewed it as follows last summer on the Goodreads site:
"If of the thousands of novels I've read I had to put together a list of the 10 best Genji monogatari would be at the top. It's not only the world's first major novel but also the most beautiful. This is the third time I've read it and am more deeply impressed than ever. Murasaki Shikibu is among the literature's greatest stylists. In describing the doings of an elite aristocracy over a period of decades she clearly anticipates Proust. Like the French author, she is not only capable of handling a large cast of characters but is also able to demonstrate convincingly the manner in which the passage of time transforms their various personalities as well as the interrelationships that exist among them. 
"The book actually consists of two novels. The second part is really a sequel to the first and was almost definitely written by a different author, most probably Murasaki's daughter Daini no Sanmi who authored several romances of her own that are now lost. Clearly there is a different style and sensibility at work in the second section. Not only are there fewer principal characters in the later chapters but the stately elegance of the first part is replaced by a more melodramatic approach that at times comes perilously close to that of a modern romance novel. Nevertheless, several of the characterizations, such as that of Kaoru, are psychologically penetrating. And the final chapters contain a plot twist worthy of any modern author, though Western readers may find the ending a disappointment. One wonders if the author had really intended to stop at that point. 
"At the heart of the book is the concept of mono no aware, a phrase Murasaki employs more than 1,000 times in the course of the novel and which is usually translated as 'the pathos of things' but more closely signifies a melancholy resignation to the transience of life itself. It's this pervading sentiment that gives the book its ineffable beauty. It is most often expressed in conjunction with the change of seasons or in imagery taken from nature, as in my favorite line from the book: 'Why to my heart must things be ever dearest that vanish more swiftly than the morning dew?' The literary device of furukoto (literally, 'old words') that contains allusions to old poems, both Japanese and Chinese, enhances the emotional impact."
The exhibit continues through June 16, 2019.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Met Museum: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey

For those with an interest in early photography the current exhibit at the Met Museum, The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey, is absolutely a "must see." Barely three years after the invention of the problematic daguerreotype process, Girault set off to record the architecture of the eastern Mediterranean, a subject that had always been of interest to him.  His journey lasted three years at the end of which time he returned to France with more than 900 photographs made under the most trying conditions imaginable.  Of those, some 120 are included in this exhibit along with a selection of the photographer's paintings and graphic works.

Though I've read several histories of early photography, I had not been familiar with the work of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey prior to viewing this exhibit.  That's not entirely surprising since Girault's daguerreotypes were only discovered in the 1920's, some thirty years after his death, in a storeroom on his estate and did not become widely known to the public until after the turn of the twenty-first century when they were put on sale by the current owners of his estate.  The Met exhibit is actually the first devoted to Girault to be held in the United States.

The quality of the daguerreotypes on display is nothing short of amazing.  Though Giraud was the first, there were other photographers who were also pioneering travel photography at approximately the same time and in the same locations as Girault.  The Egyptologist John Beasely Greene, for example, completed an extensive photographic record during his field trips to North Africa beginning in 1854.  Many of the architectural scenes he photographed were eerily similar to those captured by Girault.  Greene, however, was not working with daguerreotypes but with the rival process unveiled by Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, the same year Daguerre announced his own invention.  As Talbot's process allowed for an unlimited number of prints to be made from a single negative, it offered an incredible advantage over the daguerreotype, which it soon supplanted, and became the basis of photographic practice until the arrival of digital imaging in the late twentieth century.  But in the early days of photography there was a great drawback inherent in Talbot's process.  Salt prints made from calotype negatives were not nearly as sharp as daguerreotypes.  Seen today, these salt prints, even those made by master photographers, invariably appear "fuzzy" and charmingly old fashioned.  Daguerreotypes, on the other hand, possessed from the very beginning a sharpness and tonal range that modern photographs are hard put to match.  As a result, Greene's photographs, though made a dozen years after Girault's, seem downright primitive in comparison to the latter.

In viewing Girault's daguerreotypes it's important to remember that he did not think of his photographs as ends in themselves.  Instead, Girault used the daguerreotypes for reference in creating other works of art.  He was an accomplished painter and graphic artist who used his photographs at the basis for paintings and lithographs.  It was most likely for this reason that he used non-standard size plates and often took a number of photos of the same subject from different points of view.  For example, Girault took several different views of the minaret and dome of Khayrbak Mosque in Cairo.  His purpose does not become clear until one looks at the excellent lithograph of the same scene that he derived from them.  In like manner, Girault's watercolor of the Ramesseum in Thebes follows closely his daguerreotype of the same subject.

Girault, an intensely private person, did not see himself as primarily a photographer but rather as a scholarly expert on Mideast architecture.  Accordingly, he never attempted to exhibit his daguerreotypes during his lifetime.  One suspects he may have been embarrassed to acknowledge that he used them as sources for his artwork and feared that they may have cast doubt on the originality of the paintings and lithographs.  It's impossible to know then what he actually thought of the photographic medium.  Did he see it as an art form in itself or only as a mechanical means of recording a given scene?  One can only speculate on the importance he attached to the invaluable historical record he created.  Adding poignancy to his daguerreotypes is the unhappy realization that some of the architecture he photographed, such as the Umayyad Mosque in Syria, no longer exists, or else has been so altered that it is no longer recognizable.

The Met deserves a great deal of credit for the presentation it has created for this exhibit.  Daguerreotypes are notoriously difficult to view due to the mirrorlike surface of the plate on which the image has been fixed.  Seen from an angle, the photograph seems to vanish altogether.  Much care has been put into the proper lighting that enables the viewer to see the image as intended.  Even so, it is probably better to plan one's visit for a time when the museum is not overcrowded so that one can stand directly before the daguerreotype and view it properly.

The exhibit continues through May 12, 2019.