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.