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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

April 21, 2018 - April 27, 2018

Iconic individuals

Béla Bartók in 1939.

There was a time not so long ago when much of Béla Bartók’s music seemed terribly modern-sounding.  As a schoolboy during the last century, I remember being thrilled on hearing for the first time, a recording of his Divertimento for Strings.  It was the sheer sound of the music that was so exciting. The Bartók string quartets were a bit of a challenge, though today they fall more easily on the ear than they did fifty years ago.  Like many of the best composers, Béla Bartók (BAY-lah BAR-tohk) had his own particular way with sounds.  He created his own musical soundscapes and you can often recognise his personal sounds within seconds.

I suppose much the same could be said of composers like Sibelius, Delius, Debussy, Stravinsky or Vaughan Williams.  You can probably think of others who had the ability to build a musical sound-world that is almost instantly recognizable.  You can often recognize their music within a few moments.  Many of the finest painters had this same extraordinary skill of visualizing and creating a unique and personal style.  Just think how easy it is to recognise a Caravaggio, a Hieronymus Bosch, a Max Ernst, a Salvador Dali or a Paul Cézanne.  And you could probably spot one of the later paintings by Mark Rothko at two hundred yards.

Although he was well-travelled, Bartók remained in his native Hungary until the declining political situation after the outbreak of World War II.  He was opposed to the Hungarians siding with Germany and his anti-fascist views not surprisingly brought him into conflict with the Hungarian establishment.  He finally left the country in 1940 and settled in America.  But not for long, because within several years, he was diagnosed with leukemia and at that stage little could be done about it.

During his last years, when he must have realised that time was not on his side, he had a surge of creative energy and composed some of his finest works.  One of them was the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Concerto for Orchestra. The Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt, Weimar cond. Nicolás Pasquet (Duration: 40:04, Video: 1080p HD)

Bartók completed the score of this work on 8th October 1943 and it was performed two months later by the Boston Symphony conducted by Koussevitzky.  The title Concerto might seem rather odd because they are normally for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment.  Bartók explained that he called the piece a concerto rather than a symphony because each section of instruments is treated in a solo-like manner.  It has become Bartók’s best-known orchestral work and if you are unfamiliar with this composer, this is as good a place as any to start. 

Written in five movements, there are plenty of attractive Hungarian-style melodies, lively rhythms and reflective moments.  The talented young students from the University at Weimar give a stunningly good performance. The video quality too is equally satisfying.

Leos Janacek (1854-1928): Taras Bulba. Frankfurt Radio
Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration: 24:14, Video: 720p HD)

If Bartók is one of the most singular musical voices of Hungary, then Janacek is probably his Czech counterpart despite the fact that he was born in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire.  Leos Janacek (LAY-osh yan-AH-chek) had a somewhat daunting personality and as a student he was evidently self-opinionated.  In later years, his own students found him to be strict and uncompromising.  Nevertheless, he was a tireless worker who composed eight operas, and his early orchestral works show the influence of Dvorak whom he knew personally. But after 1900 Janacek had found his own singular voice and stylistically his later works lie firmly in the twentieth century with occasional backward glances.

Janacek completed this suite in 1918 and the original idea came from a novel by Nicolai Gogol involving a Cossack military leader named Taras Bulba.  The music depicts episodes from a 1628 conflict between Cossacks and Poles and there are three movements gloomily entitled The Death of Andrei, The Death of Ostap and The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba.  But don’t be deterred by the morbid titles because it’s a remarkably satisfying work.

In the magnificent last movement, jagged melodies suddenly appear and musical ideas are seemingly thrown around.  There are passionate outbursts of sound then sudden romantic moments.  It contains some bizarre musical ideas, yet also has the most poignantly beautiful melodies.  It also uses one of Janacek’s characteristic harmonic progressions (which first appears at 19:04), which you’ll hear over and over again, bringing the work to a thrilling and heroic conclusion.  The progression uses a dominant thirteenth chord, which instead of the classical conventional resolution, falls to the chord of the sharpened supertonic with a 9-8 suspension. Just thought you’d like to know.


April 14, 2018 - April 20, 2018

Dover Soul

Shostakovich in 1950. (Deutsche Fotothek)

When I was a student cellist, I used to play in a string quartet.  A violinist I knew had a large if somewhat drab lounge, big enough for a string quartet to play without any collisions.  Every week or so, I used to drive over there in my ancient car, the roof of which leaked so badly that I used to leave umbrellas on the back seat.  One of us would bring along a set of parts and we’d scramble through the music.  We got to know a lot of quartet music but we were playing just for the fun of it, without any professional aspirations.

There are hundreds of professional string quartets worldwide.  Wikipedia lists over four hundred of them and some have achieved legendary status.  The Borodin Quartet was formed in 1945 and it’s still going strong and one of the world’s longest-lasting string quartets.  In Britain there were the three A’s: the incredible Amadeus Quartet, the Aeolian Quartet and the Allegri Quartet which was founded in1953 and became Britain’s longest-running chamber music ensemble.

In America the Kronos Quartet has been going for over forty years and specializes in contemporary music.  The Guarneri Quartet was a top American quartet founded in 1964 and admired for its rich, warm, tone and dramatic interpretations.  The Guarneri musicians helped nurture interest in quartet playing for a new generation of young musicians.  Four of those young musicians now form the Dover Quartet which rocketed to stardom following its success at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition.

Based at the Bienen School of Music at Chicago’s Northwestern University, the Dover Quartet has become one of the most in-demand ensembles in the world.  Jerry Dubins of Fanfare magazine wrote “This is music-making not of the highest order but of the next order.  On a number of occasions, I’ve remarked on how blessed we are to be living in a golden age of string playing.  The Dover Quartet now takes that to the next level, platinum.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Quartet in E minor Op. 59 No. 2. Dover String Quartet (Duration: 38:31; Video: 1080p HD)

Published in 1808, this work is the second of the so-called Razumovsky cycle of string quartets.  They belong to what’s known as Beethoven’s “middle period” when he was developing a more complex musical style.  He was moving towards more organic growth in his music, pushing ahead with more advanced harmonies and using dramatic moments of silence.  You can hear what I mean in the first movement of this strangely enigmatic quartet.  But listen to the incredible “togetherness” of the Dover Quartet, especially in the busy section at 05:53 onwards: there’s constant eye contact between the musicians and extraordinary precision.

According to Beethoven’s younger friend Carl Czerny, the second movement came to Beethoven after contemplating the night sky.  The movement opens with luminous harmonies like a celestial hymn, but moves into more turbulent moods and shifting chromatic harmonies.  Yet often there’s a sense of continuous pulsing throughout the music like the passing of time itself. 

With their rich and singing tone quality, the Dover Quartet brings out the soulfulness in this remarkable work.  The joyous third movement has the feel of a folk dance with cross-rhythms and catchy syncopation, while the opening of the last movement could almost have been written by Prokofiev with its playful and slightly sardonic main theme.  It’s a virtuosic performance which brings a veritable eruption of applause from the audience.  You might notice that this video has already has over 62,000 views. Who is saying that there is no audience for classical music?

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): String Quartet No 3 in F Major Op 73. Dover String Quartet (Duration: 33:17; Video: 1080p HD)

This five-movement quartet dates from 1946 and was premiered in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet to whom it is dedicated.  Many people regard this work as being among the best of the Shostakovich quartets and it was evidently a favorite of the composer himself.  He had already written nine symphonies and this quartet shows the composer in full command of chamber music.  It switches between moments of consonant harmony and biting distance, yet it’s approachable and absorbing.  But like the Beethoven quartet, this work has many enigmatic, puzzling moments.

The Dover Quartet gives a characteristically tight and focused performance with splendid technical control. Just listen to the incredible precision in the sprightly third movement and the remarkably rich tone colour in the soulful and sombre fourth movement. The closing bars, in which fragments of melody are heard over a hushed, sustained chord of F major are memorable. By any standards this is superb playing.

And just in case you’re wondering, the Dover Quartet takes its name indirectly from the port of the same name on England’s Kent coast, albeit in a rather circuitous sort of way.


April 7, 2018 - April 13, 2018

On the Road in New England

 

Charles Ives.

The first time I visited New England it was back in the seventies and I’d decided to rent a car in Boston.  I had specifically requested a small one, though I can’t remember why.  The rental place was in a cavernous gloomy basement off Copley Square.  Having signed a couple of forms, the office person gestured vaguely in the direction of a fleet of cars lined up in rows.  I searched in vain for a small one.  An assistant finally emerged from the office and led me to an enormous dark green thing which turned out to be a Mercury Cougar.  Eventually, I hesitatingly drove out into the streets of Boston, but after years of driving a tiny car in Britain, I felt as though I was navigating an aircraft carrier.

I eventually fell in love with the green car; the light-as-a-feather power steering, the smooth automatic transmission and a suspension system that made it feel you were riding on a blancmange.  The real thrill came when I drove out on the interstate across Massachusetts.  I switched on the radio, poked a tuning button and out came the sounds of bluegrass music.  This normally doesn’t do much for me but on that occasion, sweeping along the Massachusetts Turnpike at a stately 55 mph, the country music was strangely appropriate.  It felt just right.

At the time, it hadn’t dawned on me that New England was the home of American “classical” music.  William Billings was regarded as the first American choral composer.  He lived in Boston and was described as “a singular man of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye…and with an uncommon negligence of person.”  One of his less scruffy contemporaries rejoiced in the name of Supply Belcher and was one of a group of mostly self-taught composers who wrote music for amateur local choirs.

The first American composer to write for symphony orchestra was the mildly eccentric Anthony Philip Heinrich.  He gave his compositions rambling titles such as The Dawning of Music in Kentucky, or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature.  One critic referred to him as “the Beethoven of America.”  As the nineteenth century marched onward, a new breed of composers began to emerge who had studied in Europe but returned home to compose, perform and acquire students.  Among them were George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, and Horatio Parker.

Charles Ives (1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor. The Perm Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov (Duration: 38:39; Video: 720p HD)

Considered the grandfather of American music, Charles Ives was another New Englander born in Danbury, Connecticut.  As a child he played drums in his father’s marching band and must have tramped down many a road in his home town. 

In 1894 he entered Yale University to study with Horatio Parker.  He became a leading student and later in life was among the first composers to engage in daring musical experiments which included polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters and elements of chance.  All this proved too much of a challenge for most people and his music was generally ignored, partly because of the relentless dissonance.  It was Ives who famously said, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”

This attractive symphony is the first of four and was composed between 1898 and 1902.  If you’ve heard his later works this might come as a surprise because it’s written in a late romantic European style.  The second movement is exceptionally beautiful and moving, evoking an atmosphere similar to the slow movement of the New World Symphony.  The scherzo is delightful with a tuneful dance-like trio section, while the last movement is a real tour-de-force with thrilling brass writing, bringing the work to a joyful and triumphant conclusion.

John Adams (b. 1947): Short Ride in a Fast Machine. BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Marin Alsop (Duration: 04:40; Video: 480p)

Adams was also born in New England.  In Worcester, Massachusetts to be precise.  According to the composer, the piece was inspired by an early morning ride in a sports car that he took with his brother-in-law.  One can only assume that they ignored the speed limit.  This is one of his most approachable works and dates from 1986.  Adams said that the piece has the “idea of excitement and thrill and just on the edge of anxiety or terror”.

This exhilarating piece is an iconic example of his so-called post-minimal style, which uses the characteristic techniques of repetition, a steady beat, the repetition of short musical ideas and perhaps most importantly, a tonality that relies on consonant harmony.  Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a joyfully exuberant piece and brilliantly scored for a large orchestra, conducted in this video by Marin Alsop, one of today’s most successful female conductors.


March 31, 2018 - April 6, 2018

Top of their class

  

J. S. Bach c. 1746.
(Elias Gottlob Haussmann)

Browsing through my list of musicians’ birthdays recently, I was reminded that 30th March is the birthday of two of the most influential European composers who ever lived.  They both wrote a huge amount of music and had an impact on almost every other composer who followed them.  I refer to Franz Joseph Haydn, whose name is synonymous with the Classical period and Johann Sebastian Bach, whose name is irrevocably linked with the Baroque.  Even today, every serious student of composition studies their music assiduously – especially that of Bach.

The complete Bach catalogue was not published until 1950 and known by its German name, Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis which is why the letters BWV are always added after the title of a Bach work.  The catalogue lists over 1,100 titles but it’s likely that he wrote many more which have since been lost.  During his lifetime, Bach was known primarily as a virtuoso organist and part of his job was to write the music for church services of all kinds. His fame as a composer didn’t really emerge until the so-called Bach Revival in the nineteenth century.  In some ways, his style of writing was typical of the late Baroque but like other individuals who are considered “great” he pushed the boundaries as did no one before him.  He had the gift for writing tightly woven textures of rich and complex counterpoint and developed tonality as no one else had done.

Bach’s achievement is staggering by any standards, astonishing in its size and yet replete with masterpieces that stand out like towering peaks in the repertoire.  The monumental St. Matthew Passion springs to mind.  It’s a massive two-and-a-half hour oratorio recounting the Passion of Jesus as told by Matthew.  In contrast, The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two books, which include a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, displaying an amazing variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques.  Taking into account well over a thousand works which would take a lifetime to know, it’s impossible to find a representative work which symbolizes Bach’s entire output.  Instead, I shall indulge myself and tell you about a set of works which have been close to my heart since my teenage years.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051. Mozart Orchestra. (Duration: 16.19; Video: 480p)

The Brandenburg Concertos are a collection of six instrumental suites which the composer presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721 along with a suitably groveling dedication.  They were not especially composed for the Margrave (although Bach may well have wanted to create that impression) but were apparently taken from other works that he’d written over the years. 

The sixth concerto is one of my favourites and it’s unusual in that the scoring doesn’t include violins.  Instead Bach writes for two violas, cello, double bass, harpsichord and two rather old fashioned instruments known as the viola da gamba.  Why Bach chose this unusual combination of instruments is unknown, though plenty of theories abound.  The work is a testament to the composer’s incredible contrapuntal technique – the skill of weaving melodies together into a seamless texture.  For example, in the bubbling foot-tapping first movement listen to how one viola thematically chases the other a second or two later.  In the second movement the gambas don’t play (again another mystery) and the third movement is a jig-like dance.  In this movement too, Bach writes complex passages in which the melody is constantly swapped between the solo violas using catchy syncopation which gives the music an incredibly lively rhythm. 

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.104 (London). Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Mariss Jansons (Duration: 27:19; Video: 360p)

No one knows exactly how many symphonies Haydn wrote, probably not even Haydn himself.  The number is usually given as 104 or 106 depending on the source but there are likely to be others.  I could have chosen any of them as a birthday celebration but Number 104 is special for me because it is the first one I ever played when I was a teenage cellist back in the Old Country.

It’s also the composer’s last symphony and part of a set of twelve intended for performance in London.  This four-movement work was written in 1795 while Haydn was living there, and premiered the same year to an enthusiastic audience.

Haydn was fond of opening his symphonies with a slow introduction and this is a grand opening to say the least.  He has fun in the third movement in which he puts stresses in the minuet in unexpected places.  The finale is dominated by an exuberant folksy melody which is sometimes supported by a bagpipe-like drone accompaniment.  The work is a lively introduction to Haydn’s mature musical style and a wonderful example of a late classical symphony.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Iconic individuals

Dover Soul

On the Road in New England

Top of their class
 

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