Saturday, 14 April 2012

Flutes flying magically across the years

Part piano solo, part piano concerto, part choral work, part fantasy, part set of variations - yes Beethoven's Choral Fantasia in C, Op.80 is an odd hybrid. Some critics have tried hard not to like this piece but I've long had a soft spot for it. 

The piano's introduction has fantasy in spades, turning generally sombre patterns into an arresting swirl. The orchestra eventually sneaks in and builds up to the announcement of the main theme - on piano. This simple tune is one of my main reasons for having a minor crush on the Choral Fantasia. Does it remind you of anything? It reminds many people of the 'Ode to Joy' theme from the Ninth Symphony. The first variation is led by the flute and has something of Mozart's Magic Flute about it; indeed, several features of this work have a Magic Flute-like quality to them. I feel that kinship even more strongly when the chorus enters towards the end. Is this connection often made? The other early variations are quite simple and charming; however, three later variations are far longer and much less simple. The first of these, a C minor allegro, spreads its wings and glides over often exciting landscapes. The second is a gentle A major adagio which dreams in broad daylight before the third, an F major military march, stirs the music back into action. This is a highpoint in the piece and leads to another passage where the piano fantasizes again, dramatically. After a brief hold-up, the delightful choral variations begin, strong and simple, and grow to a rousing climax that would be surely to meet Sarastro's approval. 

Another favourite work of mine that has passages which seem to be channelling the spirit of The Magic Flute is Schumann's endearing choral cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Requiem für Mignon. This is a Goethe setting and portrays Mignon's funeral where four boys (sung by pairs of sopranos and altos) are consoled by a choir of angels. It opens in C minor with march rhythms. The soloists continue in the minor but their discussion is regularly interrupted by the chorus in the major, singing their solacing song in a manner which shows just how effectively Robert could write in this medium. Charming tunes come and go, including 'Ach! Wie ungern brachten wir ihn her!' for the soloists and also the chorus 'Seht die machtigen Flugel doch an!' (with its rousing horn entries). The most treasurable section, 'Kinder! Kehret ins Leben zuruck', begins with a brief woodwind-accompanied baritone solo and proceeds to a joyous march-like passage for the soloists which wouldn't sound out of place in The Magic Flute itself and is one of Schumann's most magical moments. The cantata ends with a superb chorus, wherein jubilation sings out with a symphonic-style accompaniment. 

Maybe after all this talk of The Magic Flute, a link to a fine passage from that very opera might be in order. Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerden is the remarkable scene for the Two Armed Men (a tenor and a bass) where Mozart himself looks back to a great predecessor, one J.S. Bach, composing a chorale prelude on the theme of a hymn by Martin Luther. Later in the extract, the two lovers (Tamino and Pamina) then greet each other in phrases of great beauty before, at the end of the clip, undergoing the trials to march-like music and the accompaniment of the magic flute - enchanting music.  

And finally, bouncing forwards again in time (1870) to Liszt's transcription for two pianos of Der, welcher wandert, where I think it's fair to say that the Bachian impulses behind Mozart's masterly section are brought out to the full!

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