By Colin Kaye
November 17, 2018 - November 23, 2018
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.
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.
Hindemith (1895-1963): Kammermusik No.1.
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
Arvo Pärt in
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.
Tüür (b. 1959): Incantation of Tempest for orchestra.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.