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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

November 17, 2018 - November 23, 2018

Short notice

Paul Hindemith in 1923.

The weather was pretty dismal in most of England in January 1936. A depression over Spain had rapidly moved further north, bringing severe snowstorms and widespread gales to England, accompanied by driving rain and sleet. Enormous waves lashed the South Coast. It was not a good time for a visit.

It couldn’t have been a great deal of fun crossing the English Channel either. But German composer and viola virtuoso Paul Hindemith had little choice. He had been booked to play the British premier of his viola concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall on 22 January with Adrian Boult conducting. But it was not to be. King George V of the United Kingdom, the British Dominions and Emperor of India, died just before midnight on 20 January.

In the inevitable period of mourning that followed, the concert had to be cancelled because the programme was inappropriate but Adrian Boult and the BBC music producer Edward Clark still wanted Hindemith to be involved with the music that was broadcast in its place. It was eventually decided that Hindemith should be commissioned to write something for the concert to be broadcast the following evening.

The BBC found him a spare office and during the course of the next day Hindemith composed Trauermusik (Music of Mourning) in homage to the late king. It was written for viola and string orchestra and the instrumental parts were hastily produced by a team of copyists. With the ink barely dry on the pages, the work was performed that evening in a live broadcast from a BBC radio studio with Adrian Boult conducting and the composer as soloist. The Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart later remarked that he knew of no one else who could write a work in half a day and then give the first performance only hours later.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963): Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra. Scott Lee (vla), TC Orchestra (Duration: 09:33; Video: 1080p HD)

Paul Hindemith (powl HINN-deh-mitt) was an immensely prolific composer who had the ability to work quickly. During the 1930s, he was a big name in the musical world and during this lifetime wrote a dozen operas, several concertos, symphonic works and a huge amount of chamber and instrumental music. He had been in the international spotlight since the late 1920s but remained a rather controversial figure, falling in and out of favour with the Nazi hierarchy. For a time, his music was completely banned in Germany.

Trauermusik consists of four brief movements conceived in a kind of neo-classical style that gazes back to earlier, less troubled times. You might even hear echoes of Vaughan Williams. It’s a tonal piece far removed from some Hindemith’s earlier works such as the spiky and assertive Kammermusik suites of the 1920s. This is reflective, thoughtful music and at the start of the last movement (06:36), the first violins quietly play the Bach chorale Here I stand before thy throne, a popular hymn in Germany. At the time of writing, Hindemith was unaware that the tune was also known to almost everyone in England as a hymn entitled “The Old Hundredth” beginning with the words All people that on Earth do dwell.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963): Kammermusik No.1. Sinfonietta of ESMRS cond. Peter Eötvös (Duration: 14:54; Video: 720p HD)

I’ve already mentioned Hindemith’s Kammermusik and in some ways it’s much more typical of the composer’s early style. It’s his birthday on 16th November anyway so it’s only fair that he gets two cracks of the whip. In any case, he remains one of the twentieth century’s most neglected composers.

During the 1920s, Hindemith wrote eight suites for various groups of instruments which he entitled Kam­mermusic. Despite the title, some of the suites are not chamber music in the accepted sense because they’re written for comparatively large ensembles. The sparkling first suite is neo-classical in a Stravinskian kind of way and unusually includes an accordion in the ensemble.

The writer and composer Henry Doktorski wrote that the work is “a cheerful, irreverent suite which manifests clear reference to Hindemith’s early experience performing in dance bands and musical comedy orchestras in and around Frankfurt. Strong rhythms, sparkling instrumentation, and incorrigible impudence are the work’s distinguishing features. Its first three movements are a boisterously dissonant prelude, a frivolous march, and a pastoral “quartet” for the three woodwind instruments and a single note on a glockenspiel.

The Finale unleashes the whole ensemble in an obstreperous display of anarchic humor… and the end is a manic stretto worthy of any great comedy of the silent screen.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, ESMRS stands for Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía. I shall allow you the pleasure of translating that yourself. I can’t be expected to do everything around here, you know.


November 10, 2018 - November 16, 2018

Northern Lights

 

Arvo Pärt in 2008. (Photo/Woesinger)

Right then, here’s a question to test your general musical knowledge, so sit up straight and try to look as though you’re interested. How many Estonian composers can you name from memory? Not very many, I’d guess. Possibly one, if you’ve noticed the rather obvious clue on this page. If you managed to come up with the name Arvo Pärt, I will accept that. Collect your modest prize money on the way out.

Estonia is further to the East than you might imagine – even further east than Hungary. As the crow flies, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn is less than two hundred miles from St. Petersburg. Lying on the crossroads between East and West, Estonia’s culture is rich and varied and several of today’s Estonian composers have drawn freely from it.

The haunting choral works of Veljo Tormis are rooted in folklore and seem to speak of a more distant age. He wrote over five hundred choral works, the majority of which were based on traditional ancient Estonian folksongs. Eino Tamberg was the initiator of the anti-romantic movement in Estonia and he became well-known as a symphonic composer with a distinctive personal style. Today Erkki-Sven Tüür is probably Estonia’s most well-known composer, along with the legendary Arvo Pärt whose music gets performed more often than that of all the other Estonian composers put together. 

You’ve probably come across the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi who is one of the busiest conductors in the business, regularly working with the world’s top orchestras.  He is known for his ability to bring out the most profound elements of a piece and has a passion for modern and contemporary orchestral music.

Erkki-Sven Tüür (b. 1959): Incantation of Tempest for orchestra. Estonian Festival Orchestra cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration: 05:27; Video: 1080p HD)

Erkki-Sven Tüür had an interesting musical background. He studied flute and percussion at the Tallinn Music School but in 1979 he led the rock group In Spe which for a time was one of the most popular bands in Estonia. Tüür has since become an award-winning composer with nine symphonies to his credit and an enormous quantity of chamber music.

This engaging work was written in 2014 and was a commission from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. With its driving incisive rhythms, the work evokes barbaric images and dramatic moments of high tension. The orchestral writing is brilliant though this full-blooded music is not for the faint-hearted. Despite all the harmonic complexity there are strong tonal elements and the work even ends on a slightly ambiguous version of a C major chord. Notice, by the way how conductor Paavo Järvi holds the silence at the end of the piece for a full eighteen seconds before the audience begins to applaud.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Spiegel im Spiegel for Cello and Piano. Leonhard Roczek (vlc), Herbert Schuch (pno). (Duration: 10:27; Video: 720p HD)

It’s been said that the music of Arvo Pärt, inspired by ancient sacred traditions speaks to everyone. However, in his early days, Pärt wrote in an astringent neo-classical style and was influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók. Then he ventured into a twelve-tone serial technique but this earned him the displeasure of the Soviet administration and also proved to be a creative cul-de-sac. Pärt went through a long period of creative and contemplative silence absorbing himself in plainsong and Gregorian chant.

Spiegel im Spiegel (“mirrors in the mirror”) dates from 1978 and uses a style of writing that Pärt developed and named tintinnabuli, influenced by the composer’s mystical experiences with chant music. It signified a new minimalist simplicity but it’s based on a unique system of rules linked with Orthodox and Gregorian aesthetics. The melodic elements float upwards and downwards, sometimes moving only slightly before beginning a new motion in a different direction. Performing this piece is something of a challenge because the pianist has to maintain a steady pace without emphasizing any of the notes and the cellist has to maintain an unwavering even tone over the entire piece.

On the surface the music seems simplicity itself: slow repeated arpeggios in F major from the piano and fragments of floating sustained melody from the cello moving from one note to the other. Yet, this is a work of incredible beauty that seems to touch the eternal. It might even appear to reach inside you and speak to the very essence of your being. This music can produce a powerful inner experience and inexplicably brings many people to tears. When the music draws to a close, the emptiness and silence are almost painful.


November 3, 2018 - November 9, 2018

Baroque Beat

  

Spanish baroque architecture.

The recent arrival of November reminded me of the cold grey days of early winter in the Old Country and as a teenager, having to traipse to school in the damp and dismal island air. I often used to listen to baroque music first thing in the morning before going to school because a fix of a lively baroque beat would give me enough firmness of spirit to deal with the bleakest of days. I suppose nowadays, this kind of behaviour might be considered a bit nerdish, if not downright peculiar.

My favourite starter for the day was any of the six Brandenburg Concertos. These are not concertos in the sense that a single instrument battles it out against an entire orchestra but an older type of work known as the concerto grosso or “big concerto”. The main feature of the concerto grosso was that single instruments or small groups of instruments in the ensemble were contrasted against each other.

The original title of Bach’s work was Six Concerts à Plusieurs Instruments which in 1721 he presented to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. At the time, Bach was job-hunting, and he sent the concertos to the Margrave as an elaborate form of job application together with a long-winded dedication of toe-curling obsequiousness. Although they were presented as a set, the music had actually been cobbled together from earlier works that Bach had written at various times during the previous eight years.

Perhaps Christian Ludwig had been tipped off that he’d been given a recycled offering, because he was evidently a bit miffed and didn’t even bother to thank Bach for the music, let alone pay him. Bach didn’t get the job either. The concertos were consigned to the Margrave’s library and remained unknown until they were eventually rediscovered in 1850. What the Margrave clearly didn’t appreciate was that they represented some of the finest examples of baroque orchestral music.

The chapter in history that we now refer to as “the baroque” lasted roughly between 1600 and 1750. The movement gradually spread from Italy and influenced music, painting, sculpture, theatre and architecture throughout Europe and beyond. Baroque buildings were ornate and imposing, with impressive detailed facades; paintings had a sense of grandeur, richness and drama. Some of these features were echoed in music. Melodies were often elaborated with trills and various other ornamental devices. Rich, sonorous textures created by elaborate counterpoint were the order of the day as were dramatic contrasts of sound, with lively rhythms dominating the fast movements. Baroque music nearly always used the so-called basso continuo, an improvised accompaniment usually provided by a harpsichord and cello or double bass.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Brandenburg
Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048
.
Orchestra Mozart dir. Claudio Abbado (Duration: 10:19; Video: 480p)

This is one of the most exhilarating performances of the work available. The playing is crisp with a superb sense of ensemble and rhythm. Third Concerto is scored for three violins, three violas and three cellos with basso continuo. Unusually, there’s no slow movement and the printed score merely shows two sustained chords. Clearly something is missing. It’s thought that a slow movement might once have been improvised at the harpsichord, possibly by Bach himself. This would have made an effective contrast between the two bustling outer movements. But really, there’s no way of knowing what Bach originally wanted.

The two chords (which if these things interest you, form a Phrygian Imperfect Cadence) lead into the rollicking, foot-tapping third movement which is full of lively rhythms and brilliant counterpoint. The groups of strings hold sparkling musical conversations between each other and sometimes the entire ensemble plays in octaves, a dramatic technique which Bach had borrowed from Vivaldi. And in case you’re wondering the letters BWV stand for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach-Works-Catalogue), a complete listing of his music and first published in 1950.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759): Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6, No. 1. L’Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra dir. Antonio Puccio
(Duration: 12:42; Video: 1080p HD)

Handel wrote a couple of dozen concerti grossi (to use the correct Italian plurals), most of which were published in two sets as Opus 3 and Opus 6. The latter collection consists of twelve concertos that Handel wrote in 1739. They’re scored for a group of two violins and cello supported by string orchestra with harpsichord continuo.

In this five-movement work, Handel brings a huge variety of interest to the music and these concerti, like those of Bach are generally considered to be amongst the finest examples of the genre. Typical of the late baroque, the concerto uses contrasts of loud and soft, contrasts between one or two instruments and many, charming question-and-answer patterns and in the faster movements, the lively chugging beat that Handel evidently enjoyed so much. Notice how the instruments imitate each other when they play the elaborate melodies. This lively music still makes a great start to the day.

 


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Short notice

Northern Lights

Baroque Beat