Saturday, 31 March 2012

A Wolf in Schubert's clothing

Schubert's 600+ songs contain so many kinds of songs - from simple strophic songs to long through-composed ballads. Many are lyrical but there are are plenty of dramatic lieder among that vast horde of musical treasure. And you can't get more dramatic than Schubert's setting of Goethe's Prometheus. (Text and translation here.) 

Goethe's poem is a mighty one and needs a setting to match it. It's a dramatic monologue whose defiant tone reads as incendiary even today - given that when the poet wrote 'Zeus' he didn't just mean Zeus. In its day the poem had a powerful effect in the swelling revolt against the established churches of Europe. 

Schubert's song captures much of what Goethe was getting at - the defiant challenges, the insults, the confidence, the closing optimism - though there is no sense of the despair which some read into the poem. It doesn't feel like a song though, being much more of a dramatic scene. The setting moves naturally between recitative and arioso in a way that comes close to the style of the still-distant music dramas of Wagner. The recitative-style passages make much of the bold figure played in bass octaves by the piano at the very beginning and also use tremolos to great effect, summoning up a stormy atmosphere. As Prometheus begins his taunting of the gods, Schubert turns to arioso and to part-writing that seems to crawl like some unclean beast of the field. Loud chords (diminished sevenths) accompany the next recitative as the put-upon hero erupts in fury. The next arioso brings some of the song's most memorable musical lines before the music grows especially chromatic as Prometheus insults the gods again. The optimistic end rings with chords evoking the hero hammering defiantly on his anvil, hurling out hope. 

At the other end of the same century, another great lieder composer wrote his own setting of Prometheus - Hugo Wolf. Wolf's setting is extraordinary, capturing all that Schubert's song caught but raising the anger of Schubert's song into out-and-out fury. Like Schubert, Wolf begins with a striking motif that then becomes a key player (like a Wagnerian leitmotif) in his own dramatic song. Unlike Schubert, he first puts this motif to use in a long heaven-stormer of a prelude for the piano. The thunder and lightning effects of Schubert's songs are amplified by Wolf to powerful effect. The bass octaves of Schubert become huge and thunderous chords for Wolf. The singer enters as this music is repeated and spits out defiance. Wolf adored Schubert and Wagner and loved Schubert's most Wagnerian song. The influence is clear, as when Wolf draws on his own version of the crawling part-writing Schubert used for the first passage mocking the gods - here a wriggling motif. An increasingly dissonant crescendo leads to a pause and the return of the heaven-storming music. There are some memorable lyrical lines before the rage (as in the Schubert song) intensifies again. Prometheus shakes with tremolos of fury and the music proceeds towards its most Wagnerian climax. Then, as in the Schubert setting, chords evokes the hero hammering defiantly on his anvil, hurling out hope. Wolf went on to orchestrate his Prometheus and you can hear the magnificent results here

The Wanderer's fingers

BBC Radio 3's blissful Schubert extravaganza is unfortunately reaching its close and I feel the urge to pop in another post on the man of the moment, just to bid him goodbye (for a few days).

From 1822 until his early death in 1828 Schubert wrote eight wonderful piano sonatas. He had, however, ploughed the piano sonata field several times before, producing fifteen of them in the years leading up to 1822. Unfortunately eleven of those fifteen were left as fragments. Now it's fair to say that none of these early efforts (finished or unfinished) reaches the standard of their eight elder siblings but there are many pleasures to be had from them and some movements are downright lovable.

Perhaps the best known of these early sonatas is the Piano Sonata in A minor, D537. There used to be a popular presumption that it was a later work than it actually is and that may have helped it achieve a somewhat higher public profile than its rather neglected companions. This misconception doubtless arose because, unlike most of them, it actually sounds like mature Schubert. It also has the added advantage of having an especially fine first movement. This energetic section has several strong and distinctive themes, with a new tune appearing in the development section which (to my ears) derives from a fusion of the final notes of the second and third themes of the exposition. The Allegretto middle movement may strike many of you who haven't even heard it before as strangely familiar. That's because its charming main theme was re-fashioned for the finale of the late, very great Sonata in A major, D959. The transformation of the simple tune of D537 into the fabulous, flexible theme of D959 shows the extent to which Schubert developed as a composer. The Allegretto here is a relatively simple affair in rondo form with three appearances of the theme around two episodes. Each reappearance casts the tune in a different light and the episodes are contrasted - one caressing, the other more march-like. The Finale, the least attractive of the three movements, begins with something of a bang but gets a gentle answer and unfolds as another rondo, with the energy of its main sections being balanced by more lyrical episodes before ending quite dramatically.

The Piano Sonata in E major, D459 bears less of the stamp of mature Schubert and can't be classed among the finest of the early sonatas for all its attractive qualities. It's in five movements only because Schubert didn't get round to getting rid of one of its two scherzos, due to never preparing the piece for publication. It opens with a Mozart-like melody and its first movement maintains a Classical elegance throughout. Its gentle self-entwining second subject is particularly winning and its development section takes motifs from the main theme and, with the assistance of repeated notes, builds up quite a bit of tension. The first scherzo is a leap into something very different. (Surely this is the movement he would have excised, given that it seems rather out of character with its companions). Obsessive and rather impressive, it is certainly a serious piece of motif-driven writing. The lyrical central slow movement has a long melody whose character is again more Classical than Schubertian but which passes through contrasting harmonies in a way that is more characteristic of its composer. The other scherzo is a lighter piece with a simple but charming trio section. The least attractive movement is, again, the Finale (with the intriguing marking Allegro patetico) that sounds to me a bit like a pianistic take on the end-of-act operatic ensemble.

More characteristic is the Piano Sonata in E flat major, D568. This is generally Schubert at his most genial and Viennese-sounding and, though not a favourite of mine, is well worth knowing. Its arpeggio-based opening theme is a charmer and the second subject of the light-spirited first movement always makes me smile. The development section here seems to be improvising on the arpeggios of the main theme. There's a move into G minor for the following slow movement which mixes melancholic dreams with moments of drama - which is as characteristic of Schubert as his genial side. After this fine movement (my favourite) comes a tuneful if less special Minuet, whose main theme is full of surprising rhythmic kicks. Just as light as the Minuet and the first movement is the Finale with its cheerful main tune, though it has a slightly wistful second subject. It babbles along pleasingly.

With the Piano Sonata in B major, D575 we find the young Schubert attempting something more ambitious. Geniality is replaced by a restlessness of spirit. The work at times points to later pieces but can't match them in either sweep or power. The first movement is full of variety, contrasting loud imperious calls with gentler, more lyrical phrases. Initially there seem to be dotted rhythms everywhere but these recede as the exposition proceeds and the music tends attractively towards tunefulness. The development section starts with some striking key changes but trails off thereafter and, disappointingly, there's no coda (where Schubert so often gives his listeners some final consummating magic.) The Andante's opening theme is a winner, peaceful and lyrical. The gentle mood it sets, however, is disrupted by a short but shocking eruption of stormy intensity - a premonition of later Schubert. The staccato writing that immediately follows the eruption persists even when the lyrical music returns, now accompanying the main melody. The scherzo is, for me, the star movement of this sonata - and the one where the true Schubert shines forth most clearly. With appealing part-writing, dance rhythms, lovely textures and a cheerful demeanour it makes for an enjoyable listen and its trio is charming and folk-like. The Finale has a lot going for it too, with a hearty, swinging main theme and generates a generally happy atmosphere - though some of the restless urge towards variety found in the opening movement is also felt here.

My favourite fragment is the Allegro moderato for a Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, D571. (Please compare the performance in the link provided with this to get a pair of contrasting perspectives on the piece). We have the complete exposition and the complete development section. At the end of the development section, however, the score breaks off. I remain puzzled as to why the exposition can't simply be repeated  as the recapitulation (with the appropriate measures taken to put in all in the tonic key), particularly as Schubert wasn't averse to straight recapitulations in other early sonata movements. A short coda could then be dreamt up and discreetly tagged on. (I have heard such performances). Were this done all the time and the work widely performed I suspect it could become extremely popular. It is tender-sounding and deeply lyrical with a beautiful opening melody that is presented in octaves over a song-like accompaniment. This dreamy music then gives way to a transitional passage that seems like a slightly more active offshoot from the same idea but then takes flight most attractively before relaxing into a lovely lilting new melody. The development section begins as if it is going to floats through keys, as Schubert's developments often float through keys, but here does something different from what usually happens in the later sonatas - it introduces a beguiling new tune (sprung like the opening theme from three repeating notes) before doing so and then takes that tune with it on its journey back to the home key. Such a piece should not be hidden.

The turbulent first movement of the Piano Sonata in F minor, D625 is another fragment that also breaks off at the end of the development section. What a fabulous unfinished movement this is! It's based on a single idea - a falling fifth followed by a rise through a minor third (with a trill on the second note of the ascent). Schubert sometimes treats these elements dramatically, sometimes lyrically, always absorbingly. His ambitions were paying off, yet he still couldn't bring himself to follow them through to the end - which is a shame. The development section in particular, with its stunning modulations, is magnificent. The E major scherzo also displays plenty of ambition, being crammed with surprises. This movement's originality remains striking even today. Dramatic gestures, scintillating passages and gentler, more lyrical asides sit alongside each other here - and sudden modulations and quirky rhythms add yet more interest. There's no slow movement (though some performances add one). The passionate Finale storms in with a flurry of notes, though a gentle and a soothing melody follows close on its heels. An arresting new idea then appears, grown from the soothing melody's opening notes, but this too is soon stroked into gentleness. These conflicts are what we Schubertians think of when we think of his piano sonatas and here they are playing out compellingly in D625. 

Finally we come to the Piano Sonata in A major, D664. This is one any Schubert-lover will find it very hard to resist (not that they would try to). The first movement is full of lyricism and opens with a tune sure to warm your heart (especially its opening phrase). A lovely tuneful transition carries us to the second subject group (which for acute-eared listeners, defies 'convention' by beginning in the tonic and only gradually moving to the dominant.) The development section is short but worth closely attending to. It contains another of what were to become characteristic Schubert outbursts of shocking, surprising violence. It subsides quickly into quietness again but leaves its mark on the listener's imagination. The lead-back to the recapitulation is also beautifully judged. The coda is short but glows gently. The Andante has a tune I've found tends to stick around in my head for days after I've heard this sonata. The harmonies that accompany it are captivating. Keep listening to the harmonies and you'll hear Schubert moving between major and minor and modulating with all the instinctive genius we associate with the Schubert of the late instrumental masterpieces. The Finale wakes listeners from their dreams with a fit of giggles. The initially halting second theme is endearing and its treatments many and various. Together they help make a lively, cheerful sonata-form movement that is simply irresistible. This is the best of the early sonatas. 

What riches were to come in the eight great later sonatas though.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A quartet of quartets

Behind the great String Quintet stand four late string quartets by Schubert, all masterpieces, all life-enhancing. 

The first is the Quartet Movement in C minor, D703. This is one of Schubert's many fragmentary works  - his 'Unfinished Quartet'. It certainly isn't beholden to convention, if considered in terms of what we think sonata form to be (despite Charles Rosen) as its themes and keys are not in the usual order. Listeners have no need to know that, however, to revel in music of such originality. 

How does it work? A scintillating storm blows in on the opening bars (which, for scoring, are worthy of Mendelssohn). This is the first theme, which winds down quickly onto a secondary but related figure comprising a rising fourth followed by a zigzagging fall. The lovely second subject also rises in lyrical arcs before itself falling back, all to the accompaniment of a lilting rhythm. I always seem to find myself humming along here. Stormy tremolos fuel more swirling figures, ushering in chromaticism, before the exposition relaxes a little with further lyricism - a gorgeous section, generous in its ideas, culminating in magically-harmonised sequences and concluding with a graceful fade-out. The development section sets a melodic offshoot dancing over a winding cello phrase, punctuated by shuddering tremolos of varying degrees of obtrusiveness. The second subject marks the point of recapitulation, which otherwise proceeds as before. The stormy first theme finally makes its return in the coda, but only to bring the movement to a very swift close.

Next comes the String Quartet in A minor, D804 (Rosamunde). This gets its nickname because the slow movement has as its main theme the tune of the enchanting Entr'acte from the composer's incidental music to Rosamunde

A pulsating bass and an accompanying ostinato are the first things we hear. These are song-like features and they support a song-like main theme which opens with the notes of a falling minor triad. This dejected beauty of a tune evolves and then, wonderfully, resolves into the major - a classic Schubert move. The triad figure is then developed dramatically. The second subject appears after a pause and is no less lyrical than the main theme. It brings with it a mellow major-key mood, but this is immediately elbowed aside by more stormy minor-key/major-key working-out and the new tune returns chastened. The development section opens with what originally sounds like a recapitulation but which then veers aside sharply into a concentrated meditation on a tiny extract from the main tune (a pair of falling thirds basically). This climaxes and the triad figure over another pulsing bass floats us dreamily towards the recapitulation. The coda again dwells on the main theme but does so with a considerable degree of drama. This is a magnificent movement.

The slow movement get a head start in life by having that Rosamunde theme as its basis as it's an extremely lovely tune. Schubert treats it as if it were a song and the movement is at its best when most simply savouring this melody. I've always found some of the other material in the movement to be less engaging but what could be called the subject subject is attractively textured and contains a moment of characteristic harmonic magic.

I especially love the Minuet of D804. I love its gloomy, lilting main section and its romantic Trio section. The minuet is a ballroom dance for deep-dyed melancholics. It ebbs and flows entrancingly and has a great tune. The Trio grows ever warmer as it goes, beginning as a gentle dance but blooming both melodically and harmonically.

The Finale is almost as dear to my heart. It takes the form of a rondo and has a happy-go-lucky main theme with phrases that (for me) recall the equivalent theme in the genial Trout Quintet

The String Quartet in D minor, D810 is known as the 'Death and the Maiden' quartet because the theme of its slow movement variations is taken from the song Der Tod und das Mädchen

This tragic masterpiece opens with a tense, dramatic Allegro. The main theme is immediately flung into action. Its mood is defiant and a driving rhythmic figure consisting of a long note followed by a falling scale fragment in triplets is its head and heart. The theme is immediately developed, passing into agitation then returning, thrillingly punctuated by fast-rising arpeggios. The lovely second subject seems a point of lyrical repose, serenading us with Brahmsian thirds, but it too swiftly becomes tragic and intense and is developed contrapuntally - a slow version against a fast one. It's this second subject that brings the powerful exposition to a close and that also dominates the development section - a section of dynamic, passionate working (and no dreaming). The recapitulation is wonderfully teed up. The coda is the denouement of the movement's tragedy and contains its most dramatic writing. 

The Andante is that set of variations on the theme from 'Death and the Maiden'. The basic rhythm of the theme (a crotchet followed by two quavers) suggests a weary march and, despite being originally the accompaniment to the melody in the song, here it's own melodic qualities made it one of the most touching themes ever penned - beautiful, simple and intensely sad. Variation I sets the first violin dancing a fragile dance over a throbbing accompaniment then surging up thrillingly in its second half. The cello sings poignantly in Variation II over a quiet yet lively accompaniment. Variation III enhances the theme's inherently march-like quality, contrasting forceful moments with gentler strains. Variation IV takes us into the major with tender lyricism attractively decorated by the violin. As so often with Schubert, this movement does not fully dispel the prevailing melancholia and agitation and force gather for the movement's magnificent, passionate climax. All passions spent, the Andante sinks into resignation and ends.

The Scherzo - the one with the Nibelungen-like march theme - is incisively rhythmic and fierce in character whereas its major-key Trio is gently lyrical. That said, the Trio's accompaniment contains echoes of those incisive rhythms, thus linking the two sections together. Is the Trio's tune not itself an echo of the Andante's theme, thus linking the middle two movements?

The Finale is a tarantella of considerable brilliance and fire, much of it written with the sort of pinpoint panache found in a Mendelssohn scherzo - the main theme especially. The second subject acts as a confident contrast to all this glittering turbulence, as does the fleeting infiltration by lyricism encountered shortly afterwards. A gypsy-style passage passes for development before the recapitulation begins. That reprise contains a new eruption of drama and the coda is wild and very fast.

My favourite of all Schubert's quartets is unquestionably his final and finest work in the medium, the String Quartet in G, D887

It opens with a fabulous Allegro that looks far ahead to the symphonies of Bruckner. The opening bars play out the major/minor battle that runs through the best of Schubert - a G major chord crescendoing onto a G minor one. In just one of many, many strokes of genius, the composer will launch his recapitulation with a lovely reversal of this idea (minor to major). The second idea of the main subject sets a beautiful, expressive melody over a persistent tremolo that sets my spine tingling. Surging sequences on the first figure drive us onward, dancing then modulating magically towards the second subject. The second subject is like a slightly frail dancer of whom Schubert is clearly fond, given that she appears several times in full as is twice developed during this exposition. On her second appearance she is decorated by triplets from the first violin (more magic!). On her third appearance she is sung out by the cellos against pizzicati and on her fourth the triplets return to accompany the viola. Tremors pervade both the exposition's close and the development section's whole length. Fresh treasure to be found in the recapitulation includes a re-scoring of the second idea of the main subject, dispensing with the original tremolos, plus a new take on the second subject counterpointed by a warm cello melody.

The Andante features a fine main melody, played by the cello against a subtle, swaying accompaniment. It is true minor-key music. What contrast is provided? Well, the main contrast is dark and dramatic and reaches a scary climax, complete with shuddering tremolos and a slashing two-note figure. Such outbursts are characteristic of late Schubert, where tender lyricism is often juxtaposed with its contrary. The other contrast is, also naturally for Schubert, major-key tonality. The lure of this  tempts the main melody but it only succumbs towards the movement's end - and then only briefly (but beautifully).

The Scherzo is marking by fast-moving spiccato writing, generally quiet and with something of Mendelssohn and his fairy music about it. It must be a fiend to play, though it's nothing but a delight to hear. Its Trio section is very much a contrast - a gentle, genial section, half ländler, half lullaby.

The Finale is a rhythmic rondo with a main theme that dances through swift switches between major and minor. The second theme sounds as if it has wandered in from a Rossini comic opera (where it would have been a hit!). The third theme features gracefully-turned part-writing and maintains and Italian-sounding character whilst entering the major. The fourth theme, likewise. All these characterful ideas are then toyed with and re-ordered entertainingly. 

Such glorious quartets, all of them.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

That Schubert String Quintet

Hand on heart, I cannot think of a more satisfying piece of chamber music than Schubert's String Quintet in C major, D956. It plays on its listeners' emotions more subtly and more simply than many a work that tries much harder. It does so through its composer's incomparable mastery over harmony - principally the art of negotiating between the major and minor modes - as well as his no-less-incomparable mastery over melody. The deliberate emotional ambiguity that results, along with the work's lyricism, is made part of an involving structure that stresses contrasts between light and shade in ways that are always wonderful. The scoring is for two violins, viola and two cellos. 

The Allegro first movement opens with a chord of bright C major. Immediately, however, a diminished harmony casts a darkening shadow which itself is swiftly dispelled and C major restored - an absorbing beginning that builds expectancy and also a microcosm of the work as a whole. Over these harmonies floats the main subject on first violin. The first cello then re-states it in the minor, accompanied darkly. This darkness is then detonated and the two cellos sing the theme again, surrounded by explosive arpeggiated figuration - a thrilling passage brought to a heart-stirring climax. Next, with a wave of his wand, Schubert lifts the darkness and serene light wafts in and with it some of the loveliest music ever written in the shape of the movement's second subject. This gorgeous, mellow melody is given to the cellos, with the viola and violins accompanying - the former playing pizzicato below the cellos, the latter dancing lightly above. The duet then passes to the violins. The codetta theme is a little march tune which, charming as is it, might seem a mere afterthought. It isn't, as Schubert builds his development section on it, first with muscular counterpoint then with calm lyricism where it meets a lovely, soaring violin counter-melody. The build-up towards the recapitulation is also splendid and involves a rising violin figure that helps smooth the transition. The coda opens with blazing drama but closes with ambiguous serenity.

Such contrasts persist in the sublime Adagio. Meditative ecstasy is the hallmark of the outer sections, of which the second is essentially a variation of the first. Time seems to almost stop. This feeling arises from the long, slow melody given to the inner voices. The second cello provides a pizzicato bass while the first violin gives us a poignant counter-melody. The heart-melting moment when the accompaniment drops and the inner voices sing on, sinking harmonically as they go, is especially lovely (though the pizzicati continue). The varied reprise begins by surrounding the melody with a beautiful dialogue between first violin and first cello. The movement's middle section, however, thrusts a knife into this lyrical, leisurely music and carves out a slab of violent minor-key writing, rhythmically driven and very dark in sound. Its collapse leads to the reprise. The coda again closes in ambiguous serenity.

The glorious Scherzo is a brilliant open-air piece, ringing with evocations of hunting horns and crackling with energy. Melodically engaging and a textural treat, it is among the greatest of all scherzos. At the movement's heart, however, stands something completely different - the mysterious, deeply melancholy Trio section (among the greatest of all Trios), a slow, dark section in which every phrases seems to sink eventually into despair. It is very, very beautiful and once heard never forgotten.

Even the generally good-natured Finale has moments of strange stillness and a frantic coda containing even more major-minor conflict. It is, however, as I say most cheerful. It's also highly tuneful with an energetic 'Hungarian' main theme, a very Viennese-sounding second theme (full of charm) and a gentle third theme for the cellos which recalls (particularly in its mellow mood) their tune from the first movement. The material is then reprised, but with the addition of a development section (on the first theme) between the opening themes. This movement is, broadly-speaking, light relief after the rich intensity of all that preceded it. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

You are peace

One of my favourite Schubert songs is Du bist die Ruh D776, a setting from 1823 of Friedrich Rückert. It's a mystical love poem that our friend Franz floods with quiet awe. The song is essentially simple yet full of subtle touches. It evokes the spirit of peace yet has an uncanny way of acting on the tender emotions of the listener. It is pure magic from start to finish.

As so often in Schubert's songs, there's a unifying motif - here the rhythm with which he first sets the words 'Du bist die Ruh' (which can be summarised as quaver, dotted quaver, semi quaver, (dotted) crochet). You can hear that rhythm at the bottom of the texture in the piano's introductory bar. Above it is a unifying motion - an almost continuous flow of semiquavers tending towards a rocking motion that acts like a lullaby on the senses of the listener throughout most of the song. There's also that lovely rising fifth in the prelude which soars softly above the texture as well as the enchanting chain of harmonies that chime out, sustain and then resolve soft those pangs of dissonances (C against D, then B flat against C, then B flat against A flat, then E flat against F). 

The singer enters with a melody of the greatest beauty - simple but spellbinding. It uses balanced phrases and the 'Du bist die Ruh' motif, and exudes restfulness. Further pangs of dissonances appear in the harmony from time to time throughout this first section but are always soothed away by a resolving consonance. A short interlude for the piano which continues the same pang-easing harmonic process leads to the repetition of the same music for the second section. 

For the third section, however, takes Schubert's unifying motif and makes the singer stretch it in a spirit of rapture ever upwards, taking wing against another enchanted chain of dissonance-to-consonance harmonies until, for once, the rocking motion in the accompaniment stops as the singer reaches a forte. The singer must take it in one long breath if the listener is to hold his or her breath in response. The 'held breath' effect is further enhanced by a stroke of utter genius - a bar of silence. Quietly voice and piano re-enter with the same cadence that ended the earlier verses. The ascent then begins again (as the same words - the words of the final verse - are repeated), though when the voice re-enters quietly after the silence this time round Schubert adds a little bit of imitation to the piano part.

Du bist die Ruh,
Der Friede mild,
Die Sehnsucht du
Und was sie stillt.

Ich weihe dir
Voll Lust und Schmerz
Zur Wohnung hier
Mein Aug und Herz.

Kehr ein bei mir,
Und schließe du
Still hinter dir
Die Pforten zu.

Treib andern Schmerz
Aus dieser Brust!
Voll sei dies Herz
Von deiner Lust.

Dies Augenzelt
Von deinem Glanz
Allein erhellt,
O füll es ganz!

You are peace,
The mild peace,
You are longing
And what stills it.

I consecrate to you
Full of pleasure and pain
As a dwelling here
My eyes and heart.

Come live with  me,
And close
quietly behind you
the gates.

Drive other pain
Out of this breast
May my heart be full
With your pleasure.

The tabernacle of my eyes
by your radiance
alone is illumined,
O fill it completely!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Schubert: Counting to six

BBC Radio 3's eight day celebration of Schubert is now under way and, with 24 hours already gone, a blissful experience it's proving to be. Graham Johnson is introducing a selection of familiar and unfamiliar songs as I begin typing. A few hours ago, Lord Winston played us the Second Symphony (among many other treats) and hopefully this will have pricked up a few ears. Schubert wrote seven complete symphonies, of which the Ninth is - along with a certain unfinished symphony - the greatest. What of the others, numbered 1-6? Are they merely juvenalia, not worth a listen? Very far from it.  

The First Symphony in D major is the one we hear least often. It's a youthful symphony (aren't they all?), composed when Franz was just 16, but it's a piece I'm fond of and strikes a high standard throughout. Its first movement begins with Classical Era pomp and then an expectant hush. There's a Mozartian quality to the main section with its enthusiastic-sounding main subject and its dancing second subject, plus some biceps-building pumping of thematic fragments. The latter dominates the punchy development section, though there's also space for a tremolo-cloaked take on the second subject. An expectant mood then gathers again on woodwinds and the pompous-sounding slow introduction makes its return followed by the recapitulation proper. I find the whole movement an invigorating listen. The Andante is somewhat less appealing. Its main theme is attractive enough, with its gently dancing rhythms; however, most of the remaining material is rather pedestrian and the music has a tendency to get itself mired in short but banal sequences. The Minuet is consistently better. It has a vigorous charm and a Haydn-like mien. I'm very taken by it. Schubert's woodwind writing here is particularly pleasing and the timpani are put to good use too. The 'rustic' Trio section is just as good with its innocent tunefulness and pastoral-shaded woodwinds. The Finale returns to Mozart and does so with some aplomb. There's an elegant swagger to it and a plethora of pleasing themes - even if none are pulled from the top drawer. 

The Second Symphony in B flat major followed a year or so later and is hardly heard any more often. It's my least favourite Schubert symphony but, as I like all his symphonies, that's not as harsh a statement as it sounds and the symphony has much to offer throughout its not inconsiderable length. After a short but colourful slow introduction, the main Allegro vivace springs from the traps with a fast-moving theme full of fleet-footed quavers. There's then a contrasting, sweet-sounding second subject with attractive attendant woodwind twitters. This movement's exposition also includes a fiery pre-development of the main theme, though the development proper is more interesting. It's not a great movement, but it's a still a good one. The slow movement is a theme and variations on a Haydn-like tune of some charm, The variations are easy-going and fall easily on the ear. The symphony really hits the heights with its Minuet, which is (despite its marking) a scherzo! It's in C minor, the key most associated with Beethoven, and Beethoven feels quite close by here. The main section has considerable strength in its sinews. Hadyn's influence is felt in the charmingly rustic-sounding Trio. The Finale is fine as well and takes the shape of a rondo that also follows sonata form. It has a lively horseback-riding main theme powered by an irresistible rhythm which comes into its own in a genuinely exciting development section. Everything in this movement works, and works well, so I'd place it as the second best part of the symphony - just behind the Minuet. 

If you liked these first two symphonies, just wait until you try out their successor - the Third Symphony in D major from 1815. Audiences respond well to it whenever they get the chance to hear it, understandably as it's a gem. Mozart's influence is back in force and the symphony's spirit is one of brightness and fun. Its slow introduction manages to be both grand and charming and the main themes of the Allegro are cheerful. Their good cheer is balanced by some punchy transition passages, with their exciting use of crescendos. The following Allegretto's main theme may strike many listeners as having something of Haydn about it, though the theme isn't perhaps of great shakes in itself but compensates us with the delightful touches of orchestral colour added to its later phrases. The movement's lively central section has a folk-dance-like quality to it and is a charmer. There's another scherzo-like Minuet to follow - a muscular affair that should get your juices flowing - allied to a Trio section that always makes me smile. The Finale starts off rather like a Rossini tarantella and bustles along like a comic scene from an opera thereafter. It's a winning movement, full of exciting action. 

Even with the Fourth Symphony in C minor of 1816 (Schubert's first minor key symphony), we are still very much in the world of Haydn and Mozart, with a little Beethoven thrown in for good measure. The symphony's nickname is 'The Tragic' and it inhabits the world of 'storm and stress' - as many an 18th century minor key symphony had done before. The fine slow introduction certainly strikes a tragic pose. It filters a three-note figure through a fine web of harmony and changing orchestral textures. So good is this slow introduction that it rather outclasses the main Allegro part of the opening movement. In this fast section the tragic mood gives way to an heroic one and we find decent themes and a lot of thrusting ongoing development - and not just in the section usually given that name. The Andante's main theme is Mozart-like but there's a lilt to it that could only have come from Schubert's own time. Soon Franz carries it into his own world and lets it sing in full-throated fashion. This is all excellent stuff. The secondary material is dramatic, quasi-operatic even. The Minuet is also excellent with its interesting main theme and charming play of orchestral colours. If the main section is vibrant then the sweet dance of the Trio section takes us straight into an elegant Viennese room. The sonata-form Finale is an exciting tour-de-force of thematic inventiveness and symphonic logic. My favourite passages are the exposition codetta's thrilling sequence (which is artfully and dramatically revisited during the development section) and the magical lead-back into recapitulation. 

Surely everybody's favourite early Schubert symphony (it's certainly mine) is the Fifth Symphony in B flat major. This is a pure Classical symphony from the same year as the Tragic, influenced by no one later than Haydn and, above all, Mozart. It always sounds so fresh and is a masterpiece by any reckoning. The first movement opens with woodwinds chords and a tripping violin figure worthy of Mendelssohn. Then comes the famous tune - the happy main theme - and its magical woodwind 'counterpoint' second time round. Exciting linking material and a Classically lyrical second subject lead to an enchanting development section, where the work's very opening is reworked in a very special way. If the first movement is Mozart reborn, then the following Andante returns to Haydn and unfolds in a highly lyrical fashion, presenting a pair of shapely melodies. The movement's magic moment (for me) comes when Schubert chooses to move between these themes by means of a remarkable modulation - as simple as it is surprising. The superb Minuet is another scherzo and as strong in sinew as its counterpart in the Second Symphony. It's also in a minor key. The major-key Trio in contrast is a lamb-like rustic-style slow dance with a captivating, simple-seeming tune. The Finale is a genial tour-de-force of thematic inventiveness and symphonic logic (to coin a phrase!) and crams a heck of a lot of action into its fairly short duration. It's a fabulous movement to close a fabulous symphony.

And what of the last of these early symphonies, the light and frothy Sixth Symphony in C major? All the critics shout 'Rossini' about this symphony, and that influence certainly isn't hard to hear. The adorable main theme of the first movement (after the slow introduction) certainly sounds as if Rossini could have written it. The lurching second subject (with its offbeat accents) is just as likeable. Its tipsy character suits such a jolly movement. Even the development section eschews drama for gentle chatter. The slow introduction is the only part of the movement that doesn't smile. The Andante has a simple main subject with shades of Haydn (again) about it - a tune you might find yourself whistling along with after a while. The livelier contrasting section, especially in its chirpiest incarnation, is surely also worth a smile. The scherzo this time is actually marked 'Scherzo' and has something of Beethoven about it. It's an engaging section (the best in the symphony), though I have to say I find its Trio section less interesting. The Finale sounds like a medley of accompanied tunes and feels much more like an overture rather than a Classical symphonic finale. The scampering first theme is its finest feature. The Sixth Symphony is not Schubert at his finest, but it's got bags of personality and gives me a lot of pleasure.

Happy listening! (It's Schubert after all!)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Chopin's songs

As a songwriter, Chopin is not held to be a master. He is seen as composing them for his own pleasure, writing in a simple vein that's free of subtlety and all that makes him such a special composer when writing for the piano. 

Yet in Moja pieszczotka ('My Joys', Op.74/12) we hear a song in the classic Chopin form of a mazurka which hardly lacks charm. The Polish dance form allies itself here to a French style of song writing that was  to grow into the lighter kind of French opera (in one direction) and the Russian 'romance' (in another).

In Smutna rzeka ('The Sad River', Op.74/3) a lamenting mother is given a plaintive melody in three-bar phrases, again suggesting an undercurrent of Polish folk song. It's a rather beautiful song.

Gdzie lubi ('What She Likes', Op.74/5) is less striking but still charming, again anticipating the Russian 'romance' yet still possessing a Polish flavour and a light sparkle. 

Something of the manner of Schubert is found in Posel ('The Messenger', Op.74/7) where rustic drones and modal accents add flavour to an attractive strophic song. There's even the Schubert-like touch of a nightingale being imitated in the closing bars.

Slavic melancholy fills Nie ma czego trzeba ('I Miss What I Have Not', Op.74/13), a song whose sound also seems to reach deep into Russia's future - an elegiac melody sung over spare chords connected by a sadly lilting piano refrain. 

Precz z moich oczu ('Out Of My Sight', Op.74/6) is just as appealing, having a sentimental character and containing a mild mixture of Italian opera-derived phrases, 'romance' traits and folk-song touches (the latter especially in one of the piano's interludes). As elsewhere, the individuality of Chopin's piano style, as found beyond his songs, is either absent or tamed pretty much beyond recognition - and yet it still gives pleasure. 

The mazurka again lies behind Sliczny Chlopiec ('Handsome Lad, Op.74/8) and gives it freshness - a freshness that if some kind composer of our time were to orchestrate the song might well carry it into many listeners' affections. Such music points towards light Romantic opera of the kind made great by the likes of Smetana and Tchaikovsky. 

Also in mazurka form is Zyczenie ('The Wish', Op.74/1). Domesticated into art song, its disarming simplicity makes it feel warm and friendly. 

Dwojaki koniec ('The Double End', Op.74/11) sets a morbid tale and is more conventional - the sort of poignant romance Tchaikovsky might have composed. 

In Pierscien ('The Ring', Op.74/14) a lovelorn man sings about his sorrows, again in the form of a mazurka - and pleasingly so. 

Poland's suffering inspired Spiew z mogily ('Leaves Are Falling', Op.74/17 - also known as 'Hymn from the Tomb') and fired Chopin's genius to create his strongest song. The piano starts out in a slow mazurka rhythm, introducing the haunting folk-shaped melody with which the singer begins. Elegiac melodic shapes closer to the 'romance' style follow, but dotted rhythms begin to summon a sturdier spirit which springs out in defiance in the song's middle section. This dramatic passage continues with a tense monotone before a strange, obsessively circling figure seizes both performers. The tension breaks into noble optimism but then the return of the opening music reverses the mood back to present sadness. 

The ballad Wojak ('The Warrior', Op.74/10) makes effective use of suggestion in the piano part's use of fanfares and evocations of a horse galloping (again not unlike Schubert).

I'm especially fond of Wiosna ('Spring', Op.74/2), which is lyrical and elegiac and uses the dumka rhythm. It's lovely and proves the power of a sharpened fourth to add a little folk-like magic to a piece. 

Narzeczony ('The Fiancé', Op.74/15) is a dramatic ballad with a striking stormy piano refrain. It makes a strong impression.

Dumka (without opus number) is a sad song but and its repetitive phrases give it a consoling quality that make it particularly winning. 

Also sad in mood is Melodia ('Elegy', Op.74/9), Chopin's last song, composed in an emotionally-charged operatic style. It's a fine piece, striking a deeper note than most of its companions. The piano's introduction is beautiful (with a lovely harmonic move) but a stark intensity pours into the music as the singer begins.

There's nothing elegiac about the charming Hulanka ('Merrymaking', Op.74/4), with its Slavic operetta-style tunefulness and robust, dancing rhythms. 

In Czary ('Enchantment', without opus number) there are mild pleasures to be had from its spry rhythms but it's not one of the better songs.

Finally in Piosenka Litewska ('Lithuanian Song', Op.74/16) Chopin again attractively draws on the spirit of the mazurka, particularly in the piano part. The vocal part conveys the passion of a young woman.

OK, there may be little of the daring and profundity of great Chopin in his nineteen songs but they are far more interesting and enjoyable than their reputation suggests - rather like Mozart's (but that's a story for another day!).

Simples. Or not.

Nielsen's final symphony, the Sixth Symphony, bears the subtitle 'Sinfonia semplice' but, as you'll hear if you listen to the piece, it's anything but a simple symphony. Such ironic titles were clearly a part of the composer's dry sense of humour. As mentioned in the previous post, he called a movement from his Piano Suite 'Allegretto innocente' when it was far from innocent in character and the restless opening movement of the Second Violin Sonata is given the droll marking 'Allegro con tepidezza' despite there being nothing remotely tepid about it.

The opening movement is magnificent but you would have to have a brain the size of a planet to find it simple! Time for a fanciful analogy. Listening to this movement is like rock climbing. There's a great deal of effort needed but it is very rewarding and affords glorious views as you climb higher and higher and the sense at the end of a struggle won. There are steep ascents and potential pitfalls but they only serve to give an adrenalin rush to the committed listener and lead to heart-stoppingly stunning passages. The reference to 'heart-stopping' was deliberately chosen as the movement's main climax evokes the composer's own experience of suffering a heart attack. All is well at the very start as a glockenspiel chimes four times, gently, steadily. The violins sing a hopeful-sounding phrase and the woodwinds potter about. A jaunty new violin melody set to a jogging rhythm follows, sounding a neo-Classical note. A further theme follows - a memorable four-note figure on flute (the one thing that can be called 'semplice'), which is answered by a falling idea made from thirds and minor seconds over of a chromatic, wavy accompaniment. This chromatic clouding-over gathers pace threateningly and eventually evicts the jaunty tune. The mists descend poetically and an energetic fugue (full of dotted rhythms) is launched to disperse them, gaining in strength as earlier themes return. The flow of energy then abruptly changes direction, darkening again and gradually swirling upwards towards a furious climax out of which emerges a glorious blaze of major-key radiance as the hopeful-sounding phrase returns (in combination with the flute's theme) like a hymn. This breathtaking passage leads to a fascinating section where a piccolo pipes away at a single note while the strings play an archaic-sounding dance. A new fugue intrudes nervously and into it Nielsen throws further reminders of earlier themes, gathering together in a developmental ferment at the frenzied height of which a cry rings out and the glockenspiel sounds again, irregularly. This is the composer's depiction of his heart attack. Lower strings respond with a passionate song of grief. A high canon floats in on violins, flecked by glockenspiel, beautifully, sadly, and the lamenting resumes no less beautifully, again intensifying until fugal writing re-erupts. This climaxes then melts away. The closing bars are serene yet sad. We have travelled from G major/minor at the start to A flat major at the end. Yes, quite a journey and not a simple one. 

OK, so the listener has climbed all that way to the top of the rock-face and, panting, is looking out towards the second movement. What view greets that listener? An avant-garde circus! (Not what anyone would have expected!) This 'Humoreske' has worried critics since its first performance. It's so disconcertingly unlike the preceding movement, or either of the movements that follow. It's a sharply sarcastic caprice, written just for winds and percussion, made up of parodies of contemporary modernist styles and composers, with Schoenberg and Stravinsky very much Nielsen's main targets. (Koechlin's Les Bandar-Log is an interesting point of comparison). Varèse might also be a target, given the sneering siren-like trombone yawns as the movement's various perky little tunes proceed. The question is 'Can something be criticised for being out of place if it was clearly meant to sound out of place?' What was he getting at? There's no simple answer to that. Was he obliquely comparing the disorder inside his heart with the disorder inside modern music (and suggesting that Schoenberg, Stravinsky & Co. were giving it a heart attack)? Just a thought. Was he echoing Mahler's statement that the symphony must contain the whole world, including things that don't appear to fit at all?

The third movement brings back the strings in style, launching a beautiful fugato. This initial confidence soon collapses onto a strange unwinding rope of melody. Against it winds and then lower strings recall the fugato theme. The  flute launches a new theme and other woodwinds follow. The strings stop them in their tracks and the fugue and the unwinding rope tangle themselves together again to powerful effect. The woodwinds try again and a poetic passage of conflicting impulses results, quickly and mysteriously ending in a sunset glow. A fabulous movement.

Golden glows are not going to be the end-point of this symphony, however. It couldn't be that simple! The Finale is a set of dramatic variations on a quixotic bassoon theme that could only have come from the brain of Carl Nielsen. Variations I and II throw the spotlight on the winds, while the third variation is a strange fugato for the strings. Variations IV and V follow straight on and are tempestuous. Variation VI is a wry waltz and in both it and its successor this charming thing is repeatedly undermined and finally bullied into shutting up. Variation VIII comes close to being a lament and is followed by a dancing variation in which the glockenspiel's two-note ostinato, begun quietly, rises to audibility. The grim final variation brings back the soundworld of the 'Humoreske' (so there is a connection there!), with percussion foregrounded and a growling tuba prowling underneath. A mock fanfare provokes the strings to leap like bonfire flames over the side-drum. A brass chorale sounds over it and everything (Ives-like) shimmies to climax out of which comes a catchy fragment of a dance tune. This dies away and strings lead to the final flare-up, leaving the bassoon to blow a final raspberry as a 'goodbye'. 

That ending is an enigmatic as anything by Shostakovich. If you listen to Shostakovich's own final symphony, the Fifteenth, after listening to Nielsen's Sixth, you might be struck by many similarities. I've no idea whether Shostakovich knew this symphony of Nielsen's but the coincidences of technique and tone (if they are coincidences) are striking. Just re-listen to the very opening of the Sinfonia Semplice and then listen to the opening seconds of the Shostakovich for starters...

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Nielsen: Another hundred kroners' worth

...and another post does follow, straight on!

An area of Nielsen's output that gets less than its fair share of attention is his piano music. The Chaconne Op.32 is the place to plunge in here. There is a touch of the slate mine about it but that's just a surface impression. The piece (inspired by Bach's famous D minor Chaconne for solo violin) sounds an austere note at the very start - a ground bass of the kind it's not hard to imagine could have found a place in Bach's Art of Fugue - but, despite a dazzling display of brain-power (and finger power), this is a work of joyous fantasy, grippingly paced, so that it can cascade from variation to variation one minute and linger lovingly the next. Its sense of purpose is inspiring and its invention, which in its variety may be compared to Brahms, is brimming with pleasing things. Take the first variation (of twenty). It sounds a bit like a Bach counter-melody and yet has all the hallmarks of a lovable Nielsen tune. More lovable Nielsen-style tunes emerge from time to time. One melancholy variation (an absolute gem) marked by a 'falling third' motif sits at the heart of the set, just before the most exciting variations begin their run. The chaconne ends in exquisite ripples. 

Its equal is the Piano Suite, Op.45. This used to bear the subtitle 'The Luciferian', in the sense of the Bringer of Light rather than the Prince of Darkness! There is a sweep and a grandeur to some of the music that makes helps sense of that epithet. The opening Allegretto un pochettino begins coolly and calmly with a typical Nielsen melody against a no-less-typical counter-melody but soon chromatic figures rise in the left hand against lightning-like figures high in the right hand, resulting in a superbly stormy passage. This dies away gradually and the opening music returns, only to be assailed by echoes of this storm. The close is gentle but ambiguous. The second movement, marked Poco moderato, is strange and magical, shivering like a star on a icy night. This piece exploits the piano's high registers and sets a rocking motion against a melody that later becomes a duet of great if chilly beauty. Only one brief but powerful climax disrupts the unearthly spell that has been cast here. Next comes a Molto adagio e patetico, a dramatic tour-de-force that opens fortissimo with a grand theme, presented passionately, and whose flow of intense melody proceeds through storms and mystical lulls (and many unusual harmonies) very powerfully. The fourth movement's marking Allegretto innocente, like the 'semplice' (simple) marking in the Sixth Symphony's subtitle, is misleading. Yes it starts innocently enough with a gentle tune in F sharp major, but this tonal clarity is soon obscured. High registers again give this number an ethereal quality. The following Allegretto vivo combines delicacy with strength, caprice with conviction and, like Pan and Syrinx, shows Nielsen importing impressionistic elements without damaging his distinctive style. The suite's final movement, Allegro non troppo ma vigoroso, is the work's most sweepingly virtuosic movement. Its incisive rhythms and dynamic repeated notes generate considerable momentum.

After all that heaven-storming intensity, you might then like to try the Serenato in vano for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. It couldn't be more different in mood, being full of charm and Nielsen's dry wit. At the heart of the piece is the moonlit 'serenade' itself - a beautiful tune of the kind only the composer could write. Alas the serenade is 'in vain' and at the end the musicians slink away, but still in good spirits. Setting this genial little piece next to the rigorous Chaconne and the Piano Suite hopefully proves the sheer range of Carl Nielsen.

Two more overtures to finish. Firstly the Helios Overture. The opening passage sets horns calling (one in octaves, one in sevenths) over a deep pedal, depicting the rising of the sun. It's wonderfully primordial, isn't it? The sound gradually gets richer until a six-note figure emerges from it. This is an aptly warm and uplifting little idea that spread plenty of magic as it rises to a majestic climax. The splendour of this fabulous first section isn't really matched by the remainder of the piece.

Even better is the 'rhapsody overture' An Imaginary Journey to the Faroes. This also begins atmospherically, depicting the islands coming into view through a mist of low strings. Fog horns, distant fanfares and bird-calls pierce the stillness and a trombone begins a melody before the fantasy ship arrives to two horns and a hymn. This whole section is a carefully-staged slow crescendo. This hymn then sounds out resplendently on full strings, with wind counter-melodies, and climaxes impressively. After a short pause a drum brings forth a boisterous and brightly-scored folk dance. This is very ear-catching, especially when the timpani and percussion go their own way, sounding like a fireworks display. After this enjoyable and invigorating section, a wind band takes over and there's a little fugato on the tune that brings us towards the gentle and atmospheric close.

And talking of closes...

Nielsen: Worth more than a hundred kroner

There are many great Danes - Tycho Brahe, Søren Kierkegaard, Helena Christensen, Hans Christian Anderson, Brigitte Nielsen, Sandi Toksvig, Niels Bohr, Scooby Doo, Jørn Utzon, Peter Schmeichel to name but a few - but to music lovers the greatest Dane is (by common consent) Carl Nielsen (1865-1931).

First, an off-the-top-of-my-head overview of the man's music. His style evolved from being rather like Brahms to being highly individual. Or, to put it another way, from being broadly conservative and Classical-Romantic to being much more Modern. He became one of the pioneers (along with Mahler) of progressive tonality, where a work begins in one key and (after a prolonged harmonic struggle) ends up in a completely different key. Part of the appeal of Nielsen's music, for those of us who like it, is that it appeals to the heart and to the head. Others may find the contrasting aspects of his musical personality disconcerting. Sometimes, for example, you might find yourself enjoying lots of great tunes with all the catchy simplicity of folk song, smelling the fresh air of the island of Funen; at other times you might find yourself facing tough, contrapuntal writing that looms in your face with all the austerity of a slate mine. Yes, Nielsen can be open-hearted and easy-to-love but he can also be stern and less approachable. I love not knowing in advance what you're going to find in a piece by this composer. 

So, where to begin with Nielsen (if you're new to him)? Perhaps the best place would be his immensely good-natured cantata ('lyrical humoresque') Springtime on Funen (Fynsk Forår), one of my favourite pieces not just by Nielsen but by any composer. (There's no complete performance yet on YouTube, but there is an almost complete performance - linked to above). It's got loads of unforgettable fresh tunes, all penned by the composer however much like folk songs they might sound, and exudes warmth and humanity. It opens with a vibrant chorus celebrating the community and continues with an exceptionally beautiful soprano solo, whose melody is cast against luminous scoring (including a magical part for triangle) and whose original harmonies are captivating and ultimately exhilarating. One of Nielsen's loveliest melodies follows in the tenor's love song to Ilsabil. Having lost an Isabel of my own, this tune rather chokes me up.   Anyhow, then it's fun on Funen with the delightful swinging number which follows with its lilting tunefulness and 'tra-la-las' from the chorus. The heart of the piece though is the moving but very far from mawkish baritone solo 'The Blind Musician', with its beautiful melody and gorgeous scoring. Ah! Fun returns with as the children's chorus enters (an adorable section) and they are followed by a deeply lovely chorus of the elderly, an unaccompanied men's chorus. The closing 'dance ballad' provides a whirling finish. 

Perhaps the Second Symphony makes the best entry point into the glories of Nielsen's six symphonies. The piece has the subtitle 'The Four Temperaments', inspired by memories of an amusing painting the composer saw in a pub. Depicting these four traditional personality types, the symphony can be seen as programme music but this aspect of the piece is fully complemented by post-Brahmsian symphonic argument. By this stage in his career, his Brahmsian side was still quite strong but his individuality was now making itself felt. What I love this symphony for is the strength of that symphonic argument, but also for its many, many fabulous tunes. The opening Allegro collerico evokes the choleric temperament - not only its rages but also its gentler, nobler aspects. The rages are expressed in the main subject, which bursts in banging chords around like slammed doors! A transition based on rising thirds (important later) leads to the second subject, a glorious tune expressing the noble side of this type of character. The development section is powerfully worked, with a purposeful fugato and some fine stormy writing. The second movement Allegro comodo e flemmatico explores the phlegmatic personality and takes the form of a relaxed waltz, warm and gently humorous in nature. 'Che sera, sera' indeed. Just listen to the orchestral colouring here, as it's particularly winning. The third movement Andante malincolico touches great depths and is an unwallowing, sympathetic portrait of the melancholic personality. The violins give out the superb first melody, a tune that is quintessential Nielsen (though Mahlerians might like it too!) The sighing second subject on oboe is another memorable melody, with its poignant minor seconds and chromatic inflections. Both tunes form part of a majestic symphonic paragraph. The central passage is quietly contrapuntal, sounding resigned in mood. The brass rise to magnificence at the start of the reprise and there's a powerful climax and a beautiful coda. Finally, the Allegro sanguino introduces us to the sanguine personality, who is introduced with yet another 'instant classic' of a tune and who damns braces with a gusto. The second subject is less hectic and has many a Nielsen fingerprint. The recapitulation follows on straight away, without a development section. The second subject, however, enters an ill-lit maze of minor key harmony, groping for an escape which comes in the form of a stirring march. I never tire of this symphony & hope you'll treat yourself to it too. 

From there you might like to move on and explore the towering masterpiece that is the Fifth Symphony. It has that Beethoven-inspired dynamism which always makes Nielsen's 'big statements' so thrilling. Here it's directed into a dramatic two-movement structure through which the struggle from darkness to light is vividly staged. 

The first movement begins in a near-inert atmosphere with strings moving very quietly between two notes, creating a sort of wave motion, and two bassoons introducing a vague theme below. Harsher gestures hint at the menace to come but the grey mists remain, lit by soft echoes on horns and flutes. Suddenly, like ripples on a still pond, the wave figure creates a melodic shape - a theme. Another follows immediately, like a larger ripple, beginning with the interval of a third on which all the wave-like activity so far has been based, now taking the form of a wonderful yet indecisive-sounding melody. The oscillating figures persist but the wave motion passes to a solo clarinet. With the entry of the percussion, the struggle begins. The side drum turns the wave motion into a brutal march over which the strings sing a worried melody and woodwinds cry out in near hysteria. This passage introduces a whirling three-note figure which is left spinning in the air at its close. (Wonderful!) Earlier elements combine with it and the strings push on with the worried melody. A hush descends and a tense atmosphere is conjured poetically out of which emerges an Adagio section built on a new theme - a major key theme. This brings a golden glow into the movement. This great melody grows ever more beautiful as Nielsen lets his contrapuntal imagination work on it and gorgeous bright tonalities really help this passage sing. The song pauses but begins again, now graced by the wavy theme, and is soon touching on darker harmonies and sonorities as it faces the fury of the side drum, which beats against it wildly. This fiercely-fought battle ends in defeat for the drum and a glorious climax marks the moment of victory. The first battle is won, but not yet the war. The coda shows this by setting a mournful clarinet over a hushed G major chord.

The second movement Allegro erupts with an energetic theme, uncertain in harmony but positive-sounding nonetheless - especially in its leaping continuation. The tension created is palpable and contrasts sharply with the calm oboe-led passage that (briefly) follows. An exciting new paragraph comes after a pause and that is followed by a scurrying, increasingly tense 'development section'. This reaches boiling point and Nielsen keeps it there for some time. Nagging, repetitive notes are used to more the music in inertia. A fugue begins, which feels like a desperate escape bid and is met by renewed hysteria when it fails miserably. A new and more thoughtful fugue is needed if the second battle is to be won. This follows the movement's emotional low point and begins quietly on muted violins. It grows in warmth and becomes extremely beautiful, slowly winning the battle by spreading peace. It becomes apparent as it nears its close that its theme is a version of the movement's opening theme (which you only realise gradually). The latter springs back in at the climax and is recapitulated before the symphony ends triumphantly in E flat major. 

After this gripping, intense symphony, why not try the Flute Concerto? There's absolutely no froth in the piece, but there's plenty of humour in the second of its two movements that always cheers me up. Nielsen is also concerned with such things. Its first movement is closer to the Fifth Symphony in spirit, perhaps, being a drama of themes (all with distinct characters) in search of a home key, but doesn't lack geniality either. There are lots of good tunes to enjoy. 

Nielsen also wrote excellent short orchestral works, of which I'd like to single out Pan and Syrinx. This 'nature scene for orchestra' evokes the tale from Ovid with unerring skill. It opens by establishing a peaceful scene. Against tremolando violins a blissful cello theme falls and rises and a flute melody full of dreamy undulations responds. High, bright tremolandi, percussion and a capricious clarinet figure announce the arrival onto the scene of Pan. The tone-poem tracks the growing terror of Syrinx and Pan's lustful pursuit in music of deep imagination and melodic and colouristic appeal. It's beautiful and exciting. Listen out for Pan's coaxing central song and the its gloriously passionate climax (counterpointed by terror). Terror finally prompts a dramatic flight. The peaceful opening music returns and Syrinx is metamorphosized into a reed whose quivering on the breeze is evoked magically.

For the lightest side of Nielsen's output, please give his Aladdin Suite a go. Here he comes quite close to the Grieg of Peer Gynt. It's tuneful and very colourful. The movement to really listen out for is 'The Market Place in Ispahan' where the market's busy atmosphere is conjured by the overlaying of four contrasting musical ideas. The technique may be compared to Charles Ives, though Holst's Beni Mora is a more appropriate comparison. 

Hopefully, this will give you a flavour of Carl Nielsen's range and genius as a composer. More posts on Nielsen will follow.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


What better way can there be to begin a piece of music than to set in motion a characterful accompaniment and send over it a beautiful violin tune that fits it hand-in-glove? That's why the start of Schubert's Violin Sonata in A major D574 is so attractive. Though lyrical, both tune and accompaniment are capable of being worked on motifically and transformed into transitional material or, as in the case of the sparkling second subject, a 'new' tune that's completely different in character from the first subject. After the entertaining exposition, Schubert provides a brief but enjoyable development section and a straightforward recapitulation. 

The main section of the following Scherzo opens with a fanfare-like theme piano theme and is worthy of a fanfare of its own, being great fun. Brilliant and rhythmically engaging, the movement positively fizzes and has a harmonic dash typical of our Franz. The Trio section features a charming, insouciant tune and, for contrast's sake, some chromatic touches that give it added interest. 

The Andantino is, as its marking hints, not one of Schubert's most searching slow movements but it is no less lovable for that, having charming, faintly folkish melodies and using devices like double-stopping pleasingly. It's not without dramatic outbursts nor moments of harmonic magic though. 

There's more fun to be had from the Finale, with its frisky main theme and a cracking, lilting second tune.

Schubert's music has one of the warmest of all hearts. This sonata is sure to warm yours too. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Friends reunited

Does music speak for itself? (Not if this blog has anything to do with it!) Most people would hope so, but I have to confess that I didn't grasp the simple idea behind Elliott Carter's String Quartet No.5 until I heard Mr. Carter explain it and, to put myself at risk of being contradicted, I doubt many others would either - unless they heard similar words of explanation. 

The idea is a charming one. The work is structured in one movement as suite of six character pieces prefaced by and punctuated by an Introduction and four Interludes where the players 'rehearse'. That is why, unwary listener, you hear fragmentary passages followed by focused ones. The piece, therefore, enacts the process whereby a string quartet is practised and performed. Typical Carter!

The Introduction introduces us to the four individuals performing - a soulful cello, a pizzicato-loving viola, a lyrical violin and a harmonics-loving violin. They are friends and follow each other and engage with each other, allowing each other space to reveal their personalities.

As to the 'suite' itself, you will first hear a skittery 'Giocoso' where everyone enjoys themselves as themselves. Next comes a 'Lento expressivo' consisting of constantly changing chords where dissonance and consonance mingle. A 'Presto scorrevole' scurries (as the Italian term predicts!) as only Elliott Carter can scurry. The 'Allegro energetico' is full of passionate, dramatic speech whereas the 'Adagio sereno' aims at serenity with ethereal string harmonics shushing the pizzicato-loving viola. The viola has  the last word, so to speak, as the others agree to end the quartet with a pizzicato 'Capriccioso'. 

Searching for a melody

Returning to the subject of an earlier post, Jonathan Harvey has the rare knack of using electronics to create some very special music. 

A further piece to prove the point is his Ricercare una Melodia of 1984. The piece is for electronics and solo oboe. The oboe line is manipulated electronically and initially seems to be engaging in imitative exchanges with a large ensemble of other oboes. In these early stages the music seems be be searching for a melody, trying out possibilities. Eventually the piece's true melody is hit upon and the ricercare beings - here a five-part canon. The canon slows, however, on each entry and from it emerges a low bell-like sound over which the soloist continues to extend his melody. 

It's a fascinating, attractive piece, don't you think?

Domesticating the Symphony

Richard Strauss's Symphonia Domestica has always been controversial, having both vociferous detractors and staunch defenders. The critics have been chiefly concerned about the programme behind the piece and the perceived mismatch between the programme's 'triviality' (and 'bad taste') and the gargantuan effects and forces employed. I'm an unashamed staunch defender of this domestic symphony and I think that Strauss's sense of humour is a good deal stronger than that of some of his critics. The composer's own defence against the charge of triviality - what is more important than a man's love for his wife and child? - seems sane and true to me. Anyhow, the work contains so much glorious music that, philosophy aside, it is worthy of being loved itself. Moreover, the astonishing thematic working is worthy of admiration.

This is a single-movement symphony but it falls into four distinct sections (Introduction, Scherzo, Adagio and Finale) and threads everything together (including all its many, many themes) such that it seems to be the ultimate cyclical symphony.

As in Don Quixote, it pays to listen closely to at the beginning as within the first five minutes Strauss has introduced us to five contrasting themes already, all associated programmatically with Strauss himself, and moved onto a second cluster of themes associated with his wife, Pauline. That's a lot to take in, but we're given a little extra time to digest them as Strauss immediately begins to develop them before introducing his next 'character' and, anyway, we have some forty minutes still ahead of us to get to know them all very well indeed. You might note that the main Strauss theme (with which the work opens) begins with a three-note figure that inverted becomes the opening of Pauline's main theme. You might also note the 'fiery' theme on violins for Richard - essentially a rising arpeggio - as this ardent motif always bring magic with it. 

The next 'character' we meet is the couple's baby and his theme is presented rather as you would expect the main character in a play to be presented. It's a brilliantly staged entry, the lighting being cast on his beautiful theme, played by the oboe d'amore accompanied by violins, and space is provided for the audience to register this new actor's starring role. This is indeed the score's main theme. The Introduction ends with the magically-scoring cooings of the aunts (trumpets) and uncles (trombones). 

The Scherzo follows straight on and its folk-like main theme, though you might not recognise it at first, is simply the baby's theme transformed by more of his father's creative magic. Both versions of the theme are shortly after counterpointed with an ingenuity so easy-going in the manner of its achievement that the genius behind it can too easily be taken for granted. Baby gets a bath in the Trio section and kicks up quite a rumpus! Here you will also hear a gorgeous new theme of exquisite tenderness on solo violin and an equally gorgeous, romantic theme on horn. Together they create beautiful music! A lullaby follows, begun by what sounds like an (unconscious?) echo of the music that introduces dawn in the second act of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which has considerable tenderness too. The clock strikes seven (in the evening) and woodwinds serenade us with one of Richard's themes - adorable!

The Adagio section is made from the themes of Richard and Pauline and is a true symphonic slow movement as well as a passionate love scene. Here Strauss gives milk as only he can, weaving and transforming his themes into a seamless musical flow of the finest inspiration, at times tender, at times ardent, even erotic and very often ravishingly beautiful. Strauss then dreams and the result for this listener at least is a dream to hear.

Morning comes and the clock strikes seven again. Baby awakes and the Scherzo's take on his theme forms the basis of the Finale's opening double fugue, along with a second theme begun high up on the violins. The fugue represents Richard and Pauline arguing, but it's a merry argument and the composer's counterpoint is worn lightly, if lustily. The 'reconciliation' follows and the now very familiar themes mingle again, readying themselves for the joyous, brilliant big finish.