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.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Met Opera Announces Flex Subsciptions

Several years ago, the Met Opera, faced with dwindling audiences, responded to the concerns of its subscribers and finally began offering no-fee exchanges.  This year the company has gone one better and is now offering Flex Subscriptions.  It explained the new option in the letter accompanying next season's renewal notice as follows:
"Also new for 2019-20, you have the option of purchasing a Flex Subscription as an alternative to the traditional Series Subscription.  Rather than exchanging operas in your series, you can now curate the 2019-20 lineup exactly as you'd like by selecting between six and nine operas in the season."
This is truly wonderful news for loyal subscribers.  No longer must we queue in long lines to exchange unwanted tickets and risk discovering that tickets to our favorite operas are no longer available.  Now we can simply choose those performances we most wish to attend and then wait for the tickets to arrive.  The only drawback that I can see is that subscribers are no longer guaranteed the same seats for each performance.  For me, at least, this is not a major problem.

I've already chosen the six operas I wish to attend in the coming season.  They are, in chronological order: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice starring Hei-Kyung Hong and Jamie Barton; a new production of Philip Glass's Akhnaten; The Queen of Spades starring Lise Davidsen; a new production of Handel's Agrippina conducted by Harry Bicket and starring Joyce DiDonato; a new production of Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander conducted by Valery Gergiev and starring Bryn Terfel; and finally Donizetti's Maria Stuarda starring Diana Damrau.  With such great operas, conductors and singers, it should definitely be a wonderful season.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Carnegie Hall: András Schiff Performs Janáček and Schumann

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a recital given by pianist Sir András Schiff.  The programs consisted of four works, two each by Janáček and Schumann divided evenly between the evening's two halves.

The two works by Janáček were On an Overgrown Path, Book I (1900-1911) and Sonata 1.X.1905, "From the Street" (1905).

Janáček wrote only a few pieces for solo piano; in addition to the two performed at Thursday evening's recital there is really only the 1912 In the Mists.  Nevertheless. these works have been appearing with increasing frequency in recent years in recitals given by virtuoso pianists.  This is all the more interesting considering the extent to which his work was overlooked not only during his lifetime but for many decades following his death.  There are several reasons for this.  First and foremost, as a native of Moravia Janáček was not so much cut off from the musical trends of his time - he did after all study, however unhappily, at both the Leipzig Conservatory and the Vienna Conservatory - as he was indifferent to them.  It is impossible to fully appreciate Janáček's music without understanding the depth of his fervent Czech nationalism as clearly evidenced in the background to the composition of 1.X.1905.  The short, highly emotional work was written in direct response to the stabbing of a Czech activist by an Austrian soldier and as such is one of the most explicit political statements in the entire repertoire.  So traumatized was Janáček by the incident he himself had witnessed that he even attempted to destroy the score.  It was only in 1924, six years after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, that the composer finally allowed the work to be published when finally informed that the first two movements had in fact survived thanks solely to the efforts of pianist Ludmila Tučková who had secretly copied them in order to save them from Janáček's destructive impulses.

On an Overgrown Path also contains autobiographical elements, but in this case they are far more personal.  One aspect of Janáček's nationalism was his intense study of Moravian folk music, a subject on which he became an expert.  Like Bartók after him, Janáček incorporated many of the elements of this folk music, such as its irregular rhythms, into his own compositions but in his own idiosyncratic style.  These folk influences can clearly be heard in On an Overgrown Path, Book I, of which certain movements - "Words Fail," "Good Night," "Unutterable Anguish" and "In Tears" - constitute his heartfelt response to the death of his daughter Olga.  Even the movement titled "The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away" possesses funereal overtones as it refers to the folk belief that a hovering owl presaged a death in the house.  It should be noted that all these titles were added only after the work had been completed.

Janáček was definitely a musical pioneer, but it is only in recent years that he has begun to receive his due.  As a 2013 master's thesis by Laura Hrivnak points out:
"Janáček was the first composer to do many things. He was collecting folk songs and incorporating their traditions in his music before Bartók. He annotated the 'concrete music of life' in form of intonations derived from speech, sounds in nature, and even birdsong before Messiaen. He experimented in using all twelve tones as a basis for a harmonic system before Schoenberg. His opera, Jenůfa, which closely resembles Berg’s groundbreaking, realist opera, Wozzek, preceded it by eighteen years."
The two Schumann works were Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (1837) and the Piano Sonata, No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11 (1832-1835).

Both these works are very early pieces written at a time when Schumann was besotted with the teenage Clara Wieck and, perhaps because Clara was a piano virtuoso, was composing almost solely for the piano.  The self-published Davidsbündlertänze, in particular, was intended as a loving tribute following a period of estrangement.  Schumann began composing it less than a week after after the two had become secretly engaged and he himself referred to it as a Polterabend, a traditional form of party held on the eve of a wedding.  Even more telling was his use in the first movement lebhart of a mazurka composed by Clara for her Soirées musicales, Op 6.  The Op. 11, on which Schumann worked for three years, was also a love letter to Clara even if he did begin composing it while still engaged to Ernestine von Fricken.  Here again Schumann borrowed from Clara in the opening movement allegro vivace, this time from her Dance of the Phantoms.  He then went on to describe the work to Clara as "a cry from my heart to yours."

What's far more striking than Schumann's infatuation with Clara is the presence in both these works of the composer's alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, their purported composers, who reflected the contrasting aspects of Schumann's personality, i.e., Florestan was disruptive and somewhat manic while Eusebius was calmer and more meditative.  In light of Schumann's mental breakdown two decades later, it's tempting to see these imaginary characters as early symptoms of bipolarity.  The opposing influences they had upon the composer can most easily be found in Davidsbündlertänze in which the movements, each carefully inscribed with the name of the character who inspired it and sometimes the names of both, veer erratically from one mood to another and thus have an unsettling effect on the listener.  While Schumann no doubt intended the references to these characters to be playful, they can also be viewed on a more serious level as indicative of a deep conflict within his own psyche.

Sir András Schiff is a consummate pianist - the recitals of late Brahms pieces I heard last season (see my posts of 4/7/18 and 4/9/18) can only be described as historic - and his performance on Thursday evening was a fine as any I've heard.  If I have a quibble, it's with the program itself.  I would greatly have appreciated more variety.  If I remember correctly, the original program, as announced in the Carnegie Hall subscription renewal package I received in early 2018, called for a performance of the Bartók Piano Sonata, a work I'd honestly much preferred to have heard.  While I greatly enjoyed the Janáček pieces, I was not overly impressed by the Schumann works.  He was without doubt among the finest composers for solo piano - I consider his Fantasie in C major a masterpiece - but I don't believe his genius was fully in evidence in these early pieces.  Nevertheless, it's always a privilege to hear Sir András perform no matter what music he chooses to play.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Jupiter Players Perform Korngold and Schubert

On Monday afternoon I walked down to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear a recital given by the Jupiter Players.  On this occasion there were three guest artists - Max Levinson piano, Vadim Gluzman violin, and Kobi Malkin violin - but only two works on the program, one each by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Schubert.

The program opened with Korngold's Piano Trio in D Major Op. 1 (1909-1910).  Most of the pieces I've heard by Korngold were written after he had achieved success in Hollywood and, however well crafted, were too commercial for my taste.  Listening to them, I felt that Korngold had irremediably compromised his integrity as a composer by immersing himself in the Hollywood lifestyle and writing while there some sixteen film scores, two of which won Academy Awards.  To be fair, Korngold did not have much choice in the matter.  As a Jewish fugitive from Nazi persecution he had to earn his living somehow.  Nevertheless, composers such as Shostakovich and Schnittke also wrote film scores out of necessity without allowing this work to interfere with their more serious compositions.  Korngold, on the other hand, embraced popular taste and went so far as to incorporate music from the film scores into his more serious endeavors, such as the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35.

The Piano Trio, as one might infer from its low opus number, was written long before Korngold first arrived in Hollywood in 1934.  Composed while Korngold was a student of Alexander Zemlinsky (to whom the youngster had been referred by no less a musical authority than Mahler), the four-movement trio was very favorably received when premiered in Vienna by the virtousi Bruno Walter, piano, Arnold Rosé, violin, and Friedrich Buxbaum, cello.  A product of its time, the work, especially in its third movment larghetto, was redolent of the Austrian fin de siècle that was then coming to a close and showed the influence of both Brahms and Strauss.  (Not surprisingly, the latter thought very highly of the piece.)  The extremely polished work would have been a substantial achievement for any composer, but a truly remarkable feat for one then only just entering his teens.  Lush and sensuous, it was also exceptionally melodic and as such showed the first evidence of Korngold's ability to craft winning tunes, an accomplishment that would stand him in good stead decades later in Hollywood.

After intermission the program concluded with Schubert's Octet in F major, D. 803 (1824). The work was commissioned by Ferdinand Troyer, chief steward to Archduke Rudolph, one of Beethoven's most important patrons. It was inspired by Beethoven's Septet, by then almost a quarter century old but still, to the master's chagrin, by far his most popular work. Schubert for the most part adhered to his model's six movement structure and instrumentation but added a second violin to provide an even richer texture. As Troyer was an expert clarinetist, Schubert made sure to give that instrument a prominent part in the composition. Like its predecessor, the Octet is an enjoyable melodic piece that incorporates themes from the composer's lieder. It's in the tradition of the Classical divertimento but of a far more serious nature. Running a full hour in length, it demonstrates great complexity in the interrelationships among the eight instruments and in that sense can be seen as a preparatory study for the Symphony No. 9 composed the following year.

Both pieces were well played, but the performance of the Octet was exceptional. This was among the finest renditions of Schubert's classic that I've heard. I was deeply impressed by the company's musicianship on this long and difficult piece.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Met Opera: Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena Sing in La fille du régiment

On Saturday afternoon I saw the last Met opera I'll be attending this season, La fille du régiment.  In spite of the work's popularity - this is one of Donizetti's finest comic operas - I hadn't seen a performance in many years and had been looking foward to revisiting an old favorite.  I was moreover greatly interested in hearing the singing of its two stars, soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Javier Camarena.

It's hard to believe today that La fille, with libretto by such experienced writers as Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard, could ever have been anything but a huge success. Such, however, was unhappily not the case.  While there may have been some technical difficulties at the 1840 Opéra-Comique premiere - what worse opera for a tenor who could not sing on key? - the real problem was the outrage French critics felt at the adulation accorded this Italian composer ever since the 1837 French premiere of Lucia di LammermoorHector Berlioz, then still struggling for recogniton of his own compositions, was among the most disgruntled.  And certainly he had reason to be envious.  Donizetti was then at the height of his powers.  Following the retirement of Rossini and the death of Bellini. Donizetti was without question the premiere composer of bel canto opera.  However hostile the critics may have been, Donizetti had no problem whatsoever winning over the French public to the extent that years later La fille's Act II Salut à la France became something of a national anthem.

La fille itself is one of those wonderful comic operas in which a totally clichéd plot, so slight it's not worth describing here, exists only as an excuse for the singing of glorious arias.  And there are certainly no shortage of these, most notably Tonio's Act I crowdpleaser Ah! Mes amis … Pour mon âme with its fearsome nine high C's that pose a challenge for even the most accomplished tenors.  But there are other arias equally fine if not so riveting.  These include Marie's Act I Il faut partir and Tonio's Act II Pour me rapprocher de Marie.

One could hardly have asked for a finer cast than that which appeared onstage Saturday afternoon.  Tenor Javier Camarena, whom I saw make Met history several years ago when he was called back for an encore at a Rossini performance, had no trouble handling the high C's in Ah! Mes amis … Pour mon âme.  The aria not surprisingly brought down the house and Camarena once again deservedly performed an encore.  Soprano Pretty Yende, whom I saw on Saturday for the first time at the Met, was a revelation for the ease with which she handled her difficult bel canto arias.  Meanwhile, Met stalwart mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was so fine as the eccentric Marquise of Berkenfield that one wished the part were larger.  And for a celebrity turn, Hollywood star Kathleen Turner made her Met debut with this opera in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola has led a large number of bel canto operas during his career and showed himself quite capable here.  He gave the singers every opportunity to display their vocal prowess.

The one problem I had was that the 2008 production by Laurent Pelly frivolously updated the action of the opera to World War I.  I've never cared in the first place for the practice of updating operas for the sake of novelty.  Though it may not have been apparent in 2008, it was singularly inappropriate this year when the world has only just finished honoring the war's centennial.  The four year observance forced everyone to once again view stories and photos of the horrors unleashed during the second decade of the twentieth century.  We definitely didn't need to be reminded of them at a performance of a comic opera.

Looking back, this was an excellent season at the Met, at least as far as the operas I attended, and I could not have wished for a better way to end it than Saturday's fine performance.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Beethoven, Szymanowski, Chopin and Zyman

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear an hour-long piano recital, part of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, that featured an eclectic array of short pieces whose dates of composition stretched from the Baroque to the late twentieth century.

The full program was as follows:

J.S. Bach - Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910 (1712) performed by Rixiang Huang. There are questions among musicologists regarding the dating of this piece, and some believe it was assembled in its present form from fragments composed earlier in Bach's career.  The highlight of piece is the final fugue that anticipates the Chromatic Fugue, BWV 903.

Beethoven - Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78 (1809) performed by Anna Han.  Nicknamed "à Thérèse" in honor of its dedicatee, Thérèse von Brunswick, the two-movement sonata was held in quite high esteem by the composer himself.  It is distinguished from many other middle period works by its serenity and lightness of spirit, most especially in the opening adagio cantabile.  It is as though Beethoven had finally found some degree of peace of mind seven years after having penned the despairing Heiligenstadt Testament.

Szymanowski - Four Etudes, Op. 4 (1900-1902) performed by Ryan Soeyadi.  The four - Allegro moderato in E-flat minor;  Allegro molto in G-flat major; Andante in B-flat minor; and Allegro in C major - represent the composer's attempt to follow the form that had been popularized by Chopin decades before.  Szymanowski found his greatest success with the third etude, the B-flat minor, that took on a life of its own independent of the other three.  It became, in fact, so popular a recital piece that for a long while it was the only work for which Szymanowski was known, thus leading him to ruefully comment of it, "Very bad luck to have composed one’s Ninth Symphony while so young!"

Chopin - Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 (1841) performed by Natalie Nedvetsky.  Of all Chopin's pieces for solo piano I've always felt the Ballades to be the most successful.  The No. 3, in particular, is a showcase for pianists to display their virtuosity.  It has an almost playful rollicking rhythm that delights the listener as it gradually builds to a passionate climax.

Chopin - Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 (1831-1832) performed by Vicky Yin-yu Lam.  I've never really enjoyed hearing this piece - it's simply too depressing and repetitive for my taste.  Some critics have suggested that when Chopin wrote the piece while more or less living in self-imposed exile in Vienna he was downcast by the political turmoil in his native Poland and expressed his unhappiness in his music.  Whether or not there's any truth to that, the work does not possess any of the lightheartedness that the term "scherzo" would normally suggest.

Samuel Zyman - Two Motions in one movement (1996) performed by Athena Tsianos.  Before Wednesday's recital I had never heard any music by Zyman, a long time member of Juilliard's faculty, and I now feel I've been missing something.  The piece played on Wednesday afternoon, though extremly brief, was highly innovative and appeared to hold any number of technical challenges for the pianist.  Both the brevity and the difficulty are almost certainly due to the fact that it was commissioned by the California Music Teachers Association as a required piece to be performed by all participants at a Young Artists competition.  Though the work contained jazz elements, it never strayed far from its sources in twentieth century classical music.  I only wish it had been longer - it ended before I even had time to begin enjoying it.