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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update Saturday, October 13, 2018 - October 19, 2018



Francis Poulenc.

An acquaintance of mine is fond of remarking that “chamber music is musicians’ music” and while I think I know what he trying to say, it implies that chamber music is too refined for most listeners to grasp. This of course is utter nonsense. Honestly, he needs to be poked with a pointed wooden stick for saying such daft things. If I had one, I’d do it myself.

Needless to say, his own preference runs to massive orchestral works, grand opera and other gut-busting stuff. But you know, some of the finest, most expressive and most enjoyable music was written for just two or three instruments. A few monumental classics, such as Bach’s cello suites and his violin sonatas and partitas were written for only one. And so, were the countless memorable works for solo piano.

The expression “chamber music” implies something written for relatively few instruments which can be accommodated in a room rather than a concert hall. Technically speaking, it’s often defined as music in which each instrument has an individual part. For this reason, most musicians enjoy playing chamber music because unlike playing in an orchestra, they have complete artistic control over what they’re doing. To my mind the delight of chamber music is that every separate part is distinct, the harmonies shine more brightly and the counterpoint, when melodies are set against each other, is crystal clear.

A trio for example, can consist of any three instruments you care to name but over the years, several standard combinations have emerged. These include the String Trio (for violin, viola and cello) and the oddly named Piano Trio which is not, as some people might reasonably assume, music for three pianos. It’s nearly always for piano, violin and cello. Mozart wrote over twenty of them, and Haydn wrote forty-five. I have all Haydn’s on a set of CDs in the car, because with a total of ten hours playing time, there’s more than enough to help me endure the worst traffic jams that Bangkok has to offer.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1803): Piano Trio No. 44 in E major Hob. XV:28.  Van Baerle Trio (Duration: 18:05; Video: 1080p HD)

Haydn, always one to be original, begins the work with piano and pizzicato strings, an unusual harp-like effect which recurs several times during the lyrical first movement. This three-movement trio was written in 1797 and is noted for its especially wide expressive range as well as its virtuosity. Although firmly rooted in the classical tradition, to my mind the first movement seems to look ahead to the romantic ideals of the approaching new century. In contrast, the second movement turns the clock back and sounds a bit like a passacaglia in which the mysteriously creeping bass part on the piano supports weaving melodic parts above. It sounds almost Bach-like. The last movement is more familiar ground - Haydn at his most elegant with playful and characteristic cross-rhythms intended to perplex and delight the ear.

This is a rewarding work; chamber music at its most intimate and satisfying and given a sensitive and telling performance by these fine Dutch musicians.  

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon. Henri Sigfridsson (pno), Rachel Bullen (ob) and Etienne Boudreault (bsn) (Duration: 12:34; Video: 1080p HD)

Looking through my database for this column I was surprised to find that I haven’t told you about this work before. I discovered it when I was a music student back in The Old Country and it’s always been one of my favourites.

Although Poulenc (POO-lank) grew up in a musical household he was largely self-taught at composition. He later fell under the influence of Erik Satie and was one of the French composers collectively known as Les Six, a title that hardly requires translation. He’s probably best known for his Concert Champętre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra and the Gloria (1959) for soprano, choir and orchestra.

This trio was composed at Cannes in 1926, and dedicated to the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, who evidently enjoyed it. The work begins with a series of serious-sounding chords on the piano, but soon the oboe and bassoon introduce an amusing scampering melody which forms the basis of the lively movement contrasted with typical Poulenc moments of soul-searching lyricism. The second movement is a beautifully-crafted piece that radiates tranquility and always reminds me of the pastoral river-side scenes in the classic book Wind in the Willows. It’s splendidly performed too. The colourful last movement is almost like looking through someone’s family photograph album, with its images of joy, fleeting glimpse of sadness, flashes of joyous hilarity and sudden moments of heart-tugging melancholy. 

Update Saturday, October 6, 2018 - October 12, 2018

Flow gently, sweet Afton


Bedrich Smetana.

Do you ever have that curious experience in which a word or phrase inexplicably floats into your mind without warning? It happens to me quite often but I have no idea what triggers these lexical arrivals. Sometimes they are trivial, like the brand name of some product or other, sometimes they are titles of books or songs and sometimes they are words I have rarely heard before. It happened again a couple of days ago when I was pottering about in the kitchen making food for the dogs. Suddenly, the words “Flow gently sweet Afton” drifted into my mind. The words didn’t seem to have an obvious connection with dog food.

If you are au fait with Scottish literature you’ll realize instantly that Sweet Afton is a poem written in 1791 by Robert Burns. The poem was evidently inspired by a small river in Scotland, the River Afton also known as Afton Water. My Scottish grandmother used to claim that she was a descendant of “Robbie” Burns as he is affectionately known to the Scots. I later discovered that nearly all Scottish grandmothers think they are descendants of Robbie Burns.

My grandmother also claimed that she was psychic. It’s possible that I’ve inherited her psychic powers, which explains why I can predict winning lottery numbers with such uncanny accuracy. Of course, I never actually do the lottery. When you know the winning numbers in advance, it takes all the excitement away. Now then, where were we? (I was beginning to wonder myself - Ed.)

Oh yes, the poem by Robbie Burns is a lyrical, pastoral piece and interesting in that there are exactly eleven syllables in every line of the poem. It was set to music in 1837 by a Kentucky lawyer and amateur composer named Jonathan E. Spilman who perhaps was also attracted by the riverine theme. Laura Gilpin once wrote, “A river seems a magic thing … a magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.”

Now you might recall that Laura Gilpin was an indefatigable American pioneer photographer. On the other hand, you might not. But she is remembered for her expressive portraits of Native Americans and for her strangely haunting photographs of south-western landscapes. “Life is like the river,” wrote Emma Smith, “Sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.” Comparisons between rivers and human life are hard to resist. Some composers have been inspired by rivers, too.

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelík (Duration: 11:11; Video: 720p)

In the 1870s Smetana wrote a set of six symphonic poems collectively entitled Má Vlast (“My Homeland”). One of the works is called Vltava and it’s a musical description of the Vltava (VULL-tuh-vuh) River also known by its German name Die Moldau. The “journey” begins at the river’s source in the Bohemian mountains and passes through the countryside to the city of Prague and beyond. The Czech name probably comes from an old Germanic expression wilt ahwa, meaning “wild water”.

The work begins with a musical impression of springs and bubbling water. It leads to the main theme of the work which is probably Smetana’s most famous melody, an adaptation of a Moldavian folksong which bears more than a striking resemblance to the Israeli National Anthem. There are musical snapshots of a hunt in the forest (02:40); dancing at a peasant wedding (03:39); water-nymphs in the moonlight (04:51); St John’s Rapids (08:07); the triumphant arrival at Prague (09:51) and the concluding section in which the river flows away into the distance (10:41). This work normally runs for about fourteen minutes but Rafael Kubelík belts through it in just over eleven minutes at this exhilarating al fresco performance in Prague.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Dawn on the Moscow River. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, cond. Pavel Smelkov (Duration: 06:21; Video: 480p)

This evocative piece is the introduction to Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina which he began in1872. He didn’t live to finish it, but Rimsky-Korsakov later completed, revised, and re-scored the entire opera. So many cuts and alterations were made that it was virtually a new work. In an attempt to recreate something closer to the original, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the work in 1959 using Mussorgsky’s original vocal score. This is the version that’s usually performed these days. Dawn on the Moscow River is often performed as a stand-alone piece. Like the Smetana work, it begins quietly and contains some lovely music and captivating melodies before eventually fading into the silence where its musical journey began.

Oh yes, I’ve just remembered that Sweet Afton was also a brand of Irish cigarettes named after the Burns poem. They were made in Dundalk and introduced in 1919 to celebrate the somewhat tenuous link between that town and Robert Burns. The brand was reputed to be the favourite smoke of the French philosopher, playwright and novelist, Jean-Paul Sartre.

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Flow gently, sweet Afton