Thursday, 31 May 2012

Carlos Chávez: Cantos de México



A couple of my favourite pieces of music are by Mexican composers - one is the Sinfonia India by Carlos Chávez, the other Huapango by José Pablo Moncayo. As I'm touring the world  at the moment via the internet, it seems a good time to investigate what else Mexico has to offer lovers of classical music.

Quite a lot.

Let's start today with Carlos Chávez (1899-1978). Chávez is a fascinating composer, tied into the international modernist mainstream but sometimes consciously Mexican. For a while he was part of what was known as the 'Aztec Renaissance' - an attempt to draw on Indian, pre-Columbian culture to create a truly authentic Mexican music.

His most famous work is the Sinfonia India (1935-36). This rhythmically-infectious, melodious masterpiece uses indigenous instruments as well as those of the modern symphony orchestra to captivating effect. It has one of the best tunes I've ever heard - the lyrical tune, based on an old Indian tune, which sits where the second subject would sit in a sonata form movement. The beauty of that tune, the 'primitive'-sounding bustle of the opening themes (also Indian melodies), the increasingly scary-sounding development (the climax of which always sends a chill down my spine) and the eruption of joyful vivacity at the end makes his single-movement symphony a pleasure from start to finish. Usually, however, Chávez chose to imagine his Aztec music rather that draw on actual Indian tunes.

Another masterpiece, Xochipilli (1940) has the subtitle "An Imagined Aztec Music" - helpfully proving my point! Scored for four winds and percussion sextet (some ancient, some modern), this deploys a series of short melodic patterns (born within the brain of our composer) and builds them into an energetic ritual.

Moving back in time (and this post will be wont to do!), Cantos de México (1933) is fascinating anticipation of the Sinfonia India in three short movements - the second a flute solo (with percussion).


Chávez was a friend of Aaron Copland and, from what I've read, the influences ran in both directions. Copland's own El Salon Mexico was premièred in 1936 by Chávez and will, perhaps, be heard in a fresh light after hearing the Sinfonia India and Cantos de México - both of which pre-dated it. As did the delightful Republican Overture (1935, later re-named Chapultepec) which - far from being a stuffy overture - takes three pieces of popular Mexican music (by other composers) and re-casts them in a light-hearted, neo-Classical style.

The percussion writing and patterning of Xochipilli  was put to abstract use in the masterly Toccata of 1942 - a piece written purely for percussion. The opening Allegro foregrounds the drums, the central Largo highlights the metal instruments and xylophone, while the finale unites them both. There's nothing particularly Mexican-sounding about the piece which, if anything, seems to draw on the modernist influence of Varèse.

Rather like Copland, Chávez could be quite the modernist, as the Toccata proves. Take also Energia for Nine Instruments from 1925, which is a rather fierce fusion of Stravinsky with the sort of futurist (machine) music we find in Honegger, Antheil, Mosolov and Varèse.

The futurist spirit was also found in the 1926 ballet Horse Power, whose final section was called 'Machines'.  However, it's a pair of Mexican dance forms - the huapango and the zandunga - that drive the El Trópico ('The Tropic'), the third movement of the suite Chávez extracted from it - and here we see that many of the elements we associate with Copland and imagine to have been invented by him in El salon Mexico have their origins in his Mexican friend's music. This movement is quite eye-opening in that regard.


The complex picture of Chávez that I hope this post is helping convey can be further complicated by introducing his other symphonies. Preceding the Sinfonia India was the Sinfonía de Antigona (1933), which sounds strikingly different from it. This is a dark, tragic single-movement work where the composer uses ancient modes to create fiercely modern music. When we enter the 1950s,  Chávez's symphonies become close in sound and spirit to those being written by composers north of the Mexican border at the time. The Sinfonia No.3 (1951) is a big, serious symphonic statement in four movements - serious and closely-argued in the way that reminds me of composers like William Schuman more than Copland. It's a far more traditional work than those we've encountered so far. There are some Mexican-style rhythms in the second movement but the orchestral colours are more restrained and the movement, beginning where the flute figure that closed the first movement left off, largely keeps to the first movement's rigorous spirit. Similarly, the syncopations of the scherzo (my favourite movement) are feed into a contrapuntal argument that is well-sustained and the finale begins in a spirit of melancholy but also puts this at the service of wiry counterpoint before the movement erupts into violent activity. What a fine piece this is. Also more conventionally symphonic is the Sinfonía romántica (1953) with its relaxed opening movement, its austerely lyrical Lento and its good-natured finale. This - especially the two later movements - is also well worth exploring. (There are two other numbered symphonies).

This like for polyphony is also found in the Piano Concerto of 1938. This, though, is a big-boned, virtuosic piano concerto that sprawls exotically all over the carpet and that polyphony is far in spirit from the kind found in, say, the Sinfonia No.3. Here it's at the service of Mexican exuberance. The massive first movement is full of busy toccata-like writing and is a white-water-rapids-ride of a piece. The slow movement is a lovely contrast, being elegant and wistful. The finale is fun. What a likeable discovery!

As for what else Carlos Chávez was capable of, please also give these pieces a try:

Toccata for Orchestra (1947)
Baile (1953)
Tambuco (1964)
Trombone Concerto (1977)
Sinfonia No.5 (1953)
Sinfonia No.6 (1960)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Beyond 'The Four Seasons'



The solo motets of Vivaldi are proving to be quite a treasure trove. One of my favourites is In furore iustissimae irae, RV626. Scored for soprano and strings, it opens with an exciting aria where the singer (here Simone Kermes, above - with hair that's apt for the music of the Red Priest!) trembles before the righteous anger of God. The string writing creates a scintillatingly stormy backdrop for the dazzling virtuosity of the singer. The string writing will probably remind you of the Vivaldi of the concertos while the vocal writing will doubtless put you in mind of opera. The spare textures of the central passage provide an admirable contrast. After a short, softly rocking recitative where the singer pleads for forgiveness, Vivaldi gives us a second the second aria ('Tunc meus fletus' - 'Then shall my weeping'). This is an absolute beauty - lyrical, exquisite, unforgettable. Anyone who still labours under the illusion that Vivaldi lacks depth should take a listen to this number. In the aria the singer asks Jesus to make her truly repentant. The motet ends with an ‘Alleluia’ that brings back the exciting spirit of the opening aria and calls forth yet more feats of vocal display from the soprano.

In other words...



'Paraphrase' in musical terms is analogous to the usual definition of the word as it relates to language, where it means "a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form; rewording". In music, an original melody (or part of that melody) is used in a new piece and while the essence ('the meaning') of the melody remains its actual notes are changed, whether by the addition of new notes or the subtraction of some of the old notes or just by altering certain of the notes or the melody's rhythm or shape.

Tomás Luis de Victoria's lovely setting of the Ave Maria for four voices paraphrases an old Gregorian plainchant melody. The cantus (soprano) line of Victoria's piece begins with the 'Ave Maria' phrase from from the old chant, unadorned and unaccompanied and continues 'verbatim' with the phrase 'Gratia plena'. Victoria then adds a repeat of that phrase, albeit lowering both of the final two notes by a third. He alters one note of 'Dominus tecum', which he then transposes down a third and repeats. Gradually, the variation of the melody in the soprano line grows freer with an increasing number of changes to the shape of the original plainchant melody as the setting of 'Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus Christ' proceeds, culminating in a remarkable expansion of the very short original setting of 'Jesus Christ'. The phrases begin at 'Sancta Maria' have only the general arcs of the original. 

What are the other three voices doing? Well, supplying counterpoint for starters, this being Renaissance polyphony. The first 'Gratia pleni' phrase is echoed in turn by the tenor and bass while the alto repeats it but changes the final note. This imitative writing is not usual for the period but, as it isn't a Baroque fugue, the imitation is not particularly strict, nor is it pervasive. The section beginning at 'Sancta Maria', however, switches to homophony and a simple, triple-time rhythm before the metre changes back to duple time at 'peccatoribus' for a final polyphonic flourish. 

There is a second setting of the Ave Maria by Victoria, this time for eight voices - here a double choir. It is even more beautiful. Where the piece we've already met is quite simple and intimate, this setting is public music meant for grand occasions. The upper voice of the first chorus sings the memorable opening phrase, whose opening notes are those of the old Gregorian chant but which then continues along its own path. The upper voice of the second chorus echoes it. The chant is again paraphrased in this piece, though far more elusively. It does becomes very close to the original at 'Benedicta tu in mulieribus'. As often in works for double choir, the choirs sometimes sing separately, sometimes together. The 'Sancta Maria' is again a point of simplification, but the sharpest contrast comes with the strongly rhythmical section beginning at "Ora pro nobis". 

Both settings are masterpieces. Ave Victoria!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Symphonies and Requiems



Benjamin Britten thought his superb Sinfonia da Requiem too short a score to call a symphony and yet it is one of his most symphonic works. Though guided by the particular moods of three sections of the requiem mass, the Sinfonia also makes that most traditional of symphonic journeys, from darkness to light, and does so through dynamic thematic working, a clear tonal plan centred on D and a continuous three-movement structure that consists of two outer slow movements framing a central scherzo. 

The opening movement, Lacrymosa, is a Mahlerian dirge of considerable power. It opens to a pounding assertion of the tonic note before a muted march begins with a theme introduced by the cellos. This theme, syncopated and strong on the interval of a second, is answered by a tense four-note bassoon figure. These two ideas duopolize the movement gently but grimly throbbing early stages, climaxing magnificently. The movement's second section opens to a sequence of alternating major and minor chords high in the flutes and low on the trombones. Eventually a new theme, strong on the interval of a seventh, joins in an intense development-like slow crescendo at the peak of which the pounding rhythm of the opening returns and drives the Lacrymosa to a thrilling climax where major and minor again clash.

The second movement, Dies Irae, follows straight on. Britten himself called it a 'Dance of Death' and his model is clearly the archetypal sardonic Mahler scherzo. A sinister fluttering flute is its starting point, introducing the movement's main motif. Other short figures follow, including a tarentella tune on trumpet. The trio section sets an eerie saxophone tune against fierce martial rhythms. The scherzo's close is a remarkable fragmentation, a break down, a dissolution...On first hearing this passage struck me as being the work's most original passage.

The final Requiem aeternam emerges from these ruins. This deeply beautiful movement's main theme is a somewhat Eastern-sounding melody in bright D major sung by a trio of flutes and made magical by the soft collisions of their seconds over a quietly revolving bass-line played by harp and bass clarinet. Horns give them their blessing, warmly. This peaceful music has a ritualistic character. In contrast, the highly Mahlerian central passage, with its long, yearning melody and romantic warmth feels full of human passion. Britten brings this to a glorious climax. When the ritualistic music resumes this warmth lingers on courtesy of a counter-melody on solo violin. The Sinfonia da Requiem ends quietly. 

This masterpiece is Britten at his finest.


The Sinfonia da Requiem was commissioned from Britten rather bizarrely by the Japanese government in 1940. I've never quite got my head round Britten's acceptance of that commission. Swiss composer Arthur Honegger wrote his Symphony No.3 (Liturgique), widely considered to be his symphonic masterpiece, at the end of the war and the work evinces not a small degree of horror and despair at humanity's dark depths. It's a bleak piece then but it closes in a spirit that can best be described as tentatively hopeful. It has clear connections to Britten's piece, as you will hear. Its subtitle derives from its drawing on sections from the requiem mass - as with the Sinfonia da Requiem

The fierce first movement, Dies Irae, evokes humanity's torment in the face of barbarity, mechanisation and suffering - in the words of the composer. As a musical experience, however, it's exciting stuff (flippant as that may sound to say) - rather like the comparably mechanically-driven scherzos of Shostakovich. Darkly-orchestrated, grippingly-argued music, striking in its material, somewhat grotesque, strongly grim, it turns toughness into an enjoyable listen. (Think Hieronymus Bosch!)

The second movement, De Profundis clamavi, is the symphony's adagio - a movement of deep lyricism, pleading most beautifully. It proves Honegger to be a true master. Though complex in its harmony at times, you can tell that it is ultimately in E major.

The finale, Dona nobis pacem, is meant to evoke a future of slavery for humanity under mechanised collectivism - a nightmare vision indeed. However, having an exciting theme and a first-rate main theme, Honegger's magnificent music might make you feel that, perhaps, the coming Hell-on-Earth has compensations, especially when the Devil can swing! The nightmare has a consolatory coda though which Honegger said was just a Utopian fantasy not a likely reality - a quiet, slow section, serenely lyrical and beautiful, with flute and piccolo evoking the 'bird of peace' against warm strings. 

This masterpiece is Honegger at his finest. 

Symphonic Mugams and Classical Ballets - the Music of Azerbaijan



While every man, woman and child in Europe was glued to their TVs watching the Eurovision Song Contest from Baku last night, I was touring Azerbaijan's classical music online!

Azerbaijan's composed classical music tradition is a 20th century affair, so much of it was written during the Soviet era. You could hear it as merely following what soon became the official line that music should reject modernist experimentation, stick close to the empire's 19th century classical heritage and draw on the peoples' music - i.e. folk music. Several of the composers mentioned in this post clearly did all those things. However, the Azerbaijani composers I've been listening to were surely also following a path which they wanted to follow, especially in seeking to integrate their national folk traditions with Western classical music. After all, composers across Europe (from Vaughan Williams to Enescu, from Falla to Szymanowki) were doing just that of their own accords - as were the many of the composers of North, South and Central America. Some of these Azerbaijani works consist of a string of folk melodies dressed in all the colours of a symphony orchestra (or other familiar kinds of ensemble), often based on mugama, or national modes, with set scales and fixed melodic patterns, and sometimes including native instruments too. That said, there are a lot of ballets here too and they could have been written by any imaginative minor Russian composer at the end of the 19th Century.

Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) was the 'Father' of Azerbaijani composed classical music, founding this mixed style of classical writing in his native land. He wrote operas such as Leyli and Majnun (full of mugam-style passages as well as more conventional operatic writing) and operettas such as Arshin Mal Alan. His Koroglu Overture is especially popular. 

His cousin Soltan Hajibeyov (1919-1974) followed a similar path. His most popular piece appears to be the short, seductively-scored tone-poem Caravan

For symphonic mugams, Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) was the pioneer. He seems to me to be the most modern-sounding - and successful! - of these composers, penning such treats as The Girls' Dance (shades of 'The Sabre Dance') from Nizami. His large-scale Symphonic Mugams is quite a remarkable listen, strikingly different to listening to much Western symphonic music - more like a huge, rhapsodic, improvisatory-sounding (though not actually improvisatory) outpouring for orchestra. If that's a bit too much for you, please try his attractive Azerbaijani Capriccio or the colourful ballet The Arabian Nights. As a measure of Amirov's appeal, the famous British composer Leopold Stokowksi took up his music, including the extrovert Kyurdi Ovshari.


Another composer of symphonic mugams was Niyazi (1912-1984). The title of his Rast is simply one of the traditional modes of Azerbaijani (and other) folk music, the one closest to Western music's major scale (though the quarter tones in its scale give it a highly non-Western twist).

Another big name was Gara Garayev (1918-1982). His ballet Seven Beauties is a decent example of how an Azerbaijani composer could integrate his national melodies with a ballet style that is firmly rooted in the style of the Mighty Handful. Don't expect it to sound much like a Prokofiev ballet - or even like Amirov! (For a short sample, please try the score's Waltz.) For an example of Garayev's chamber music please try his listener-friendly String Quartet No.2. Compared to Amirov, however, Garayev's music seem paler. 

Other names to conjure with include Afrasiyab Badalbeyli (1907-1976), composer of the ballet The Maiden Tower (further extracts here and here); Arif Malikov (1933-), composer of the ballet Legend of Love; and Vasif Adigozalov (1935–2006), composer of this little Elegy.

For someone rather different - a contemporary, female Azerbaijani composer whose name is somewhat better known in the West - please try Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (1947- ). With her music experimentation is back! From the Berg-inspired serial modernism of her Piano Sonata No.1 of 1970 to the Piano Quintet of 2000 you find her Crossing II the Oasis of Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road project, where West meets East and where the composer re-joins the composers mentioned above, employing the spirit of mugam in the context of a mainstream-sounding Western contemporary style complete with sound effects.

I can't say that I've come across any outright masterpieces here but listeners who enjoy colourfully orchestrated, tuneful, exotic-sounding Russian music will also find much to enjoy in these pieces from Azerbaijan and Fikret Amirov's music is certainly worth further exploration.  

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Debussy's Prints



Rather like the great impressionist painters, Debussy is now so familiar and popular that the sheer radicalism and originality of music can very easily be taken for granted. When I read Pierre Boulez many years ago stating that the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was the beginning point of modern music it rather took me aback, as the Prélude is such a beguiling piece which now feels familiar and friendly and about as revolutionary as an afternoon spent relaxing in the garden on a sunny May afternoon in England that the idea of it being the start of the musical dawn that eventually brought us Pli selon pli and Le marteau sans maître seems an incredible statement. Yet it is true. 


Of all the sets of piano pieces by Debussy I've a particular soft spot for the Estampes of 1903. These are considered the composer's breakthrough pieces as regards him becoming the great radical of the piano we know (if we remember) from the Images and Preludes

Estampes (meaning 'Prints') begins with an evocation of East Asia, Pagodes. What Debussy is doing here is rendering for the piano and impression of the soundworld of the Javanese gamelan, which the composer had only recently heard in Paris. The low notes sounding resonant fifths are certainly evoking gongs, but conjuring the specific sonorities of the Eastern percussion orchestra isn't really what Debussy is about here. Over soft gong-sounds, a melody is played. It is then repeatedly replayed at the same pitch and with no change whatsoever to its actual notes against a changing background of new harmonies and, later, a counter-melody. This is new in Western music, but not (of course) new in Russian music. (See my earlier posts on Glinka and Balakirev). Debussy learned a lot from Russian music. The process had already been tried in his orchestral work, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, where the opening flute melody is treated in a similar way. A pedal (those gong-like open fifths) makes this music float. The rest of Pagodes shows how Debussy abandoned the old tonic-dominant harmonic progressions and the old logic of the Franco-German tradition and began structuring pieces in a new more mosaic-like way. Passages come and go and are repeated or re-coloured rather than developed. Debussy made music from fragments, fragments that appealed to him, shoring them against his ruins (to make an apt allusion to Eliot's The Wasteland).

La soirée dans Grenade, the central 'print', paints the scene of a sultry night in southern Spain with an evocative power that bowled over Manuel de Falla. The piece uses the rhythm of the habanera throughout.This dance had an eventful career in French classical music but was born in Cuba early in the 19th Century. As the century progressed it migrated to Spain and became voguish there. The charming works of Basque composer Sebastián Yradier, such as La Poloma and El Arreglito, put the dance on the map in France. (See if you recognise who borrowed a tune from El Arreglito and made it very famous!) Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Chabrier and Ravel all wrote habanera-based works (all of them gems). In La soirée dans Grenade the rhythm strikes up and Debussy gives us a Spanish-style melody. The melody is heard and later re-heard but not really developed. It is a fragment to be savoured, like the scent of orange groves. A new, faster fragment is juxtaposed with it. A comparison to the art of mosaic-making could be made, with each fragment between a piece in the mosaic - all adding up to a total, colourful, coherent work of art. Other pieces are added to the mosaic as it proceeds towards its final form. 

Estampes ends with the toccata-like Jardins sous la Pluie ('Gardens in the Rain'). As you will hear, this is no light drizzle on the garden but a full-blown downpour. Intriguingly, the tunes in this movement are, in the manner of T.S. Eliot, borrowed tunes - a couple of French folksongs, Dodo, l'enfant do and Nous n'irons plus au bois. These tunes dance on raindrops. 

Perhaps the other reason why Debussy's radical originality is overlooked, of course, is that - unlike the likes of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez (etc) - his revolutionary music is revolutionary in the least threatening way. The results are so beautiful that the 'newness' of the means used to achieve them becomes almost irrelevant to the listener.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Complete this work which I began



If you think you know what to expect from the music of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) - bleak or ironic (or both), each work full of startling stylistic contrasts - then you might be surprised by his Choir Concerto, a 40-minute masterpiece in which the composer demonstrates a superlative technique and an ear attuned to beauty. Setting aside despair, irony and 'polystylism', Schnittke offers his listeners a serene and radiant work which draws deeply on the traditions of Russian Orthodoxy and the great Russian choral tradition. Lovers of the Tchaikovsky Liturgy and the Rachmaninov Vespers need not hesitate here. If it ever sounds like 'modern music' it's only in some of its harmonies, which can recall the lushest chords of Arvo Pärt, but overall the Choir Concerto is a one-off wonder of majestic consonance and luminous choral colour.

The long opening section, 'O master of all living things', contains stretch after stretch of beautiful music, with an opening paragraph that delivers a memorable melody, sumptuous harmonies, gorgeous textures, a masterly ebb and flow and ravishing changes of key and mode. The structure is, as tradition permits, repetitive - though Schnittke handles his repetitiveness discreetly. Thus, a recurring feature is a shifting pattern based on a three-note falling figure, which the composer initially ranges across one major or minor third only to affect a magical brightening of key later to thrillingly affirmative effect. This is set against a chant on one note and enhanced on its later appearances by melismas - the movement's most stunning passage containing a shining mass of them. Homophony is the prime method, with counterpoint being confined to decorative touches and brief, simple bursts of imitation. Emotions of elation and heart's ease will hopefully be experienced, though there are undercurrents of lamentation too.

A background of 'alliluyias' is one hypnotic feature of 'I, an expert in human passions', the second movement. This has a main theme based on a minor second, set in motion against itself in the other voices and with homophonic passages for contrast. Blazes of bright tonality interrupt the chromatic tug of the music associated with this theme - major countering minor - and the movement's climax is wonderfully fervent. Listen out for the magical soaring soprano line that is placed as a counter-melody when the theme returns late on. The ending is a well-judged fade-out.

'God, grant deliverance from sin' begins in black, penitential colours with male voices only presenting the chant-like main theme and remains generally a more sombre movement with a keening two-note figure on a minor second (which fans of James MacMillan might also appreciate) emerging midway out of a brighter major second-based figure and with a lamenting babble following close on. Radiant homophony yields mostly to gently interweaving lines and minor-key harmonies. It's very powerful stuff. There is another brief but thrilling soprano solo to listen out for as she soars out over the male chorus and provokes the mixed chorus's entry.

The final section 'Complete this work which I began' brings homophony back centre-stage and is supremely lovely in its textures - radiant serenity flooding back in. Its opening bars may again remind you a little of Pärt but soon the music sings out with Romantic warmth. Affirmation soon follows. Many of this movement's harmonies are gems, and simple melodies ride on them. 'Amens' on rising major thirds emerge from high sopranos, gently, over a haunting cloud of D major and conclude the work enchantingly. 

For those unfamiliar with what Alfred Schnittke's music usually sounds like, please try a few of the following pieces:

Symphony No.1
Concerto Grosso No.1
(K)ein Sommernachtstraum
Viola Concerto
Silent Night
Piano Quintet

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Praeludium to Bach?



The German Baroque is a rich and fascinating period. Between its greatest early voice, Schütz, and its final mighty flowering with Bach and Handel, the period offers listeners a multitude of fine composers. One such is Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697).

Bruhns was as short-lived as his great English contemporary, Purcell, and has suffered the posthumous misfortune of having most of his works lost. There are few than twenty surviving pieces - but what pieces! 

A pupil of Buxtehude whose works were known to Bach, Bruhns stands as one of the most interesting voices of the stylus fantasticus - a style of organ music where fantasy and flamboyance went hand in hand. Only five organ pieces remain - four Praeludiums and a chorale fantasia. The most impressive of the former is the Praeludium in E minor, which begins with an introduction teeming with invention - grand gestures, extrovert figuration, dramatic pauses, chromaticism - before switching to a fugue on a strikingly chromatic theme. The quality and harmonic daring of this and the work's other fugue approaches Bach. There's more fantasy in the passage between the two fugues, including a passage where the music breaks into a dance and another where a solo violin (accompanied by the organ's pedal) seems to be improvising - a practise that Bruhns himself is said to have engaged in for real! The second fugue skips along jubilantly before a big, rhetorical finish. There's a second shorter Praeludium in E minor, which will strike a chord with those who know the early organ works of Bach. This is an excellent piece too, if not quite so extraordinary as its companion. Its fantasy-filled prelude contains some likeable echo effects and its fugue is masterly. The Praeludium in G minor is a little more ordinary but the Praeludium in G major is first-rate, with its toccata-like introduction and its festive-sounding fugue. The chorale fantasia on Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is a beautiful work, presenting the chorale melody before giving us three variations on it and then a final toccata-like flourish. The counterpoint is richly-imagined, even passing into five voices at one point. This is music to enrich the spirit. 


Bruhns's vocal works are less well known, but they don't deserve to be. His cantatas are closer to those of his teacher, Buxtehude, than to Bach and by 'cantata' we're not talking about the kind familiar from Bach where distinct movements with solo arias, choruses and chorales turn turns but rather of single-movement hybrid pieces (sometimes also called 'sacred concertos') with short sections for various combinations of voices and instruments. Variety is the spice of life in these works.

The opening sinfonia of Muss nicht der Mensch auf dieser Erden in stetem Streite sein will show you the standard we can expect from Bruhns here - even before the voices enter. It's a contrapuntal masterpiece surrounded by trumpet fanfares. A later fugal section (with voices and trumpets) is at least as good and is interrupted by a section for the voices and continuo alone that shows remarkable harmonic depth. Apparently, Bach admired this piece - as well he might. The Easter cantata Hemmt eure Trähnenflut has more such contrapuntal wizardry as well as some more aria-like passages that point to Bach and is, if anything even better. The alto aria takes the form of a passacaglia. I'm also highly taken with Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet. This begins with a lovely trio (including violins and continuo) that will perhaps remind some listeners of Purcell and there's a walking bass in the following high-flying soprano 'aria'. There's something of the old viol fantasy about the textures of the bass 'aria'. This is followed by another delightful trio with bass continuo, with the violins re-entering at the end to sustain the high voices' praise of peace with gently sonorous chords. A dancing fugal 'Amen' brings the cantata to a close. Ich liege und schlafe for four voices, strings, bassoon and continuo is a funeral cantata and strikes a suitably contemplative tone. It is gently beautiful throughout. In it, more than in the other pieces, I can still hear the benign ghost of old Schütz. As for Die Zeit meines Abschieds ist vorhanden, for five voices and instruments, this takes us through a variety of moods within its concise frame, from sadness to grandeur and vigour. It has a magical opening section that treats a couple of attractive themes contrapuntally, adding voices and instruments as it goes. Dramatic pauses, chromaticism and sudden gear changes add to the interest as the music flows on through its various short sections. Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet is wonderful feel-good music, with dancing strings and strong melodic lines. Listen out for the various treatments of the phrase 'Lobet den Herrn', including a wonderful series of fanfare-like flourishes for both singer and strings. His Mein Herz ist bereit has a wonderful opening that recalls the violin sonatas of his contempory, Biber, and the following 'aria' has a catchy melody, its catchiness accentuated by its rhythms, and plenty of engaging word-painting. The delights just keep on coming with Bruhns.

Further listening:

O werter heil'ger Geist
Jauchzet dem Herren
De profundis
Paratum cor meum

Monday, 21 May 2012

Beyond Sauvignon Blanc



Continuing my world tour, I've always been partial to nationalistic-sounding pieces from Latin America - the best-known works of Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, Chavez and Revueltas, for example - but have never heard anything from that fine, tall-but-slim-looking country, Chile. What has Chile to offer the classical music listener (besides tasty but inexpensive wines)? Going off its reputation, I expected music of considerable sophistication that would be outward-looking and up-to-date with contemporary trends in Europe and America. I haven't been disappointed.

Pedro Humberto Allende (1885-1959) is considered one of the greatest Chilean composers of the last century and our good (and always reliable) friends at Wikipedia inform us that he was well-regarded by Debussy, among others. First impressions are highly favourable. The nationalist impulse - comparable to that expressed across Europe by everyone from Vaughan Williams to Bartok as much as to the rest of Latin America at the time of composition - is clear in his Twelve Tonadas Chilenas. The tonada is a type of Chilean folksong and Allende's treatment of them accentuates both their tunefulness and the tanginess of their harmonies in ways that show the influence of Debussy and Ravel and will appeal to those who enjoy the piano music of Falla and Mompou. Performances of these attractive pieces can be heard here:
-------Tonada No.5
-------Tonada No.9
It isn't surprising that No.7 appears twice, as it's particularly loveable. I think you'll find the Cello Concerto of 1914 to be of great interest too, though it largely eschews Chilean folk music for the language of international late Romanticism (with touches of Debussy). My goodness, what a discovery! The piece is in the traditional three-movement form and combines passionate lyricism with considerable sophistication. The central Adagio has an especial melodic warmth. The world doesn't exactly have a large number of first-rate Romantic cello concertos and is missing out by not recruiting Allende's very fine piece into that select club of widely-performed pieces.

Enrique Soro (1884-1954) is another Chilean late-Romantic whose music needs exploring outside of Chile. The Tres aires chilenos are first-rate light music of the kind that British composers wrote so well in the early decades of the last century. His earlier Danza Fantástica is good fun too. I suspect these pieces will cheer you up no end! For Soro on a more ambitious scale, please try his Piano Sonata No.3 in C major (Mvts 2, 3 & 4). The style is Romantic and heroic, with plenty of lyricism for good measure, but - like Allende - you will discover that the sweeping Romanticism is supplemented by touches of post-Debussyan/post-Scriabin writing in all four movements, especially in the irresistible outer sections of the third movement Scherzo. Whether the two contrasting styles entirely gel is an open question! I suspect you will have enjoyed meeting this sonata's acquaintance as much as I did though. There's nothing about it that would give its Chilean (or Latin American) provenance away and I suspect that Soro is to be seen as an old-fashioned Romantic at heart. For Soro pieces with no pretence of being anything other than European 19th Century-style works, please try the slow movement of his Piano Concerto and his Andante Appassionato - music that speaks straight to the heart.


Alfonso Leng (1894-1974) was not only a composer but also a dentist. Relax though as his music is far from painful! (Or so I deduce from a very small sampling of his output). He's clearly another late-Romantic, as this beautiful pair of Preludios for orchestra demonstrate. Had I blind-lasted these pieces I would have guessed that they were composed by a Scandinavian composer somewhere around 1900. His Dolora No. 1 and Doloro No.3 are similarly attractive pieces of old-fashioned Romantic writing, this time for the piano. Another Chilean composer of quality.

Acario Cotapos (1889-1969) sounds (on a similar small sample of his work) to be a more 'modern' composer, as can be heard in the dramatic first movement of his Sonata-Fantasía for piano, where a Scriabin-like sensibility veers vertiginously towards the future and Messiaen. His music is much more 'advanced' that anything being written in Britain at the time. The tiny, enigmatic prelude for orchestra Soledad del hombre ('Loneliness of Man') and the extraordinary orchestral song, Philippe L'Arabe, (which, if I were to risk a pithy description, I'd describe as 'Expressionist Szymanowki'), both composed quite early in his career, also suggest that Cotapos's music is well worth exploring.

Juan Orrego-Salas (1919-) was once a Copland pupil. The Copland-Latin American two-way influence is a notable feature of the music of Mexican composers such as Carlos Chavez. Is there any Copland effect on Orrego-Salas's music? Hard to tell without hearing any of his orchestral music. The song La Gitana ('The Gypsy') is very much in a traditional Spanish/Latin American art song style (a la Falla). His Sextet for B flat clarinet, string quartet and piano is a beautifully-written piece of the kind I associate with French late-Romanticism - despite the music's touches of neo-Classicism and moments of harmonic tartness. (See also Mvts. 2, 3 and 4). With the Egloga from his Duos Concertantes Op.41, I'd say that we are again in a place where Romantic lyricism meets neo-Classical grace, and harmonic modernity also makes an occasional appearance. I did spot one harmony that sounding like Copland though! The neo-Classical element (including those glimpses of jazz in the Sextet) seems to have become much more pronounced by the time of Orrego-Salas's Partita (Mvts. 1 & 4). The influence of Copland might be said to be found here, but there are other quarters the composer could have got this soundworld from. Again, an intriguing composer who deserves a wider hearing - as so much of this Chilean music does. Aleluya!

Alfonso Letelier (1912-1994) is (apparently) best known for his three large-scales orchestral songs, Los sonetos de la muerte ('The sonnets of Death') (Pts. 2 and 3). These inhabit a promiscuous soundworld that lies somewhere between Straussian/Puccinian late-Romanticism and Bergian Expressionism. A parallel between this kind of music and the sensationalist passions and orchestral ripeness (over-ripeness?) of inter-war Europeans like Schreker, Krenek, Korngold is easy to make. It's music that's meant to overpower the listener's senses and Letelier's songs are heady, fascinating stuff.



The music of Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (1925-2010) often seems a world away from the music we've encountered so far. However, from what I've read, he seems to have been both a very prolific and a highly unpredictable composer, sometimes sounding traditional, sometimes sounding anti-traditional. That said, through him we can hear a Chilean's take on the post-war international avant-garde. Becerra-Schmidt was a leading pioneer of his country's electroacoustic music and his works in this medium often combine the Cagean ideas of chance-controlled music with Nono-like radicalism, though - to my ears - the electronic works of Edgar Varèse sound closer to the actual sound of his pieces. For a flavour of it, perhaps try his relatively gentle Oda al Mar ('Ode to the Sea') or the eerie Nocturno. Like Nono, Becerra-Schmidt was highly active on the political Left, as the titles of the suitably violent-sounding Batallas para Allende ('Battles for Allende') and the strangely otherworldly Lenin suggest. Lenin is particularly engaging, though - unlike the Allende piece - the title seems bizarrely at odds with the sound of the music (which is humped-back-whales-in-space music, to be incredibly crude about it!). For the other side of his music, please try the String Quartet No.4 (Mvts. 2, 3 & 4), which is more in the manner of Berg, Bartok and Shostakovich, and for a piece of purely tonal choral music, why not try Revolución? (I won't supply you with the text for that piece, as I suspect you won't need it!) Becerra-Schmidt taught Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), the communist composer most closely associated with the government of Allende and writer of that favourite anthem of anti-capitalist types the world over, ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! ("The People United Will Never Be Defeated!") 

He also taught Luis Advis (1935-2004), another left-winger who (like Ortega) draw on Chilean folk and popular music. The influence of popular music can be heard transmuted into lyrical classical music in his attractive piano Preludes and pop and folk are turned into something not-quite-classical-though-not-quite-pop-or-folk in his highly tuneful, easy-on-the-ear Sinfonía los tres tiempos de América ('America's three-times symphony'). 

Chilean-Israeli composer Leon Schidlowsky (1931-) beat Becerra-Schmidt to it when it came to writing electroacoustic music, writing Chile's (and, it seems, Latin America's) first such piece back in 1956, namely Nacimiento ('Birth') - though it does sound rather dated these days! Schidlowsky was an avant-gardist, seemingly of the Schoenberg school - if his Six Piano Miniatures of 1952 are representative. Quite how his music has developed since then I'm unable to say, unfortunately.


Chilean-German composer Leni Alexander (1924-2005) was also an avant-gardist. (Wikipedia says that Boulez and Maderna were her friends). A short sample of her music is Carta de lluvia ('Letter of Rain'), music written to accompany a film made in contemplation of rain. Gentle, lyrical, imaginative serial music, this tiny window of opportunity suggests another composer whose music merits further exploration. 

Fernando García (1930-) is another Becerra-Schmidt pupil and another Chilean composer who wrote in the style of the post-Webern avant-garde - as can be heard in the song, Muerte (perhaps closest in style to Dallapiccola). He too got involved in electroacoustic music (and politics).

Juan Allende-Blin (1928-) is also to be placed in the avant-garde camp. His strange but beautiful Mein blaues Klavier for organ, hurdy-gurdy and Jews harp sounds like electroacoustic music! There's too little music by Allende-Blin to form a judgement at this stage but a sense of how he was regarded can be gauged from a piece called One, for Juan Allende-Blin written by John Cage.  

There's music for most tastes in this short, sketchy survey of Chilean music. Where my enthusiasms lie can, I hope, be easily guessed!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Beyond Bjork



My love for the music of Jón Leifs has prompted me to look into what else Iceland has to offer listeners, musically-speaking - beyond Bjork, of course. Time for a brief and doubtless quite random survey!

The best place to begin, perhaps, is with Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927). Sveinbjörn is Iceland's Romantic composer and wrote the country's national anthem, Lofsöngur ('Hymn'). His song with chorus, Sverrir Konungur ('We are now king' - according to Google Translate!), sounds remarkably like Mussorgsky, with a dash of Mendelssohn when the chorus enter. It's a winning song. The Mendelssohn influence dominates in such pleasant piano miniatures as the Minuet and Trio and his Idyll and Víkivaki (a type of folk-dance). For a short, light orchestral piece, please try his Festival Polonaise. (A world away from Leifs, he!)

Sveinbjörn came to live in Edinburgh - a journey which, one hundred years on, another Icelandic composer took, namely Hafliði Hallgrímsson (b.1941). Now, Hafliði (known to us Brits as Hallgrimsson) is the only living Icelandic Classical composer whose music I already knew. The composer offers us five tasters of his music on his own You Tube channel: two tasty excerpts from his large-scale Passion setting (Passia I - and Passia 2), a lovely piano piece for children called Old Sacred Window and a whirling one for adults called Fley -  both of which, in their different ways, show the influence of Messiaen, though the latter has something of Bartok too. Bartok's influence can also be heard in the extracts from Poemi for violin and string orchestra - an exciting, wonderful-sounding piece. The only work of his I already knew, were you wondering, is the Cello Concerto - a strong work that raised my expectations of the composer. This sounds like good, mainstream contemporary music - again, a world away from Leifs.

For a very recent piece that does sound a bit like Leifs, how about Hrím ('Freezing') for chamber orchestra by a more avant-garde young composer, Anna Thorvaldsdottir - an imaginative soundscape that sounds like a landscape of shimmering light on ice and snow, bleak but beautiful? We're in the world of Leifs's drift ice again! Anna's music is interesting on so many levels. Amidst all the wonderfully-wrought orchestral evocation of landscape and natural processes you can also hear lyrical melodic lines winding their way. It's music that seems to be dreaming. And Dreaming is the title of another piece of Anna's that uses the orchestra to conjure a captivating soundscape. I suppose, if I'm guessing, that her music is influences by the 'clouds' side of Ligeti's music. (No 'clocks' are involved in the making of this music!) Dreaming is not without a certain epic quality at its climaxes, albeit (being a contemporary composer, writing in the times we live in) that epic quality is highly constrained. Other works to explore include Streaming Arhythmia and, for something away from the orchestra, Hidden for solo percussionist on piano (ah, yes, I wrote that correctly! Fans of Henry Cowell will like this.) Anna (pictured below) is clearly a composer whose output needs following closely and her music should, hopefully, begin to spread far and wide.


As you may have gathered so far, Icelandic composers may be on an island midway between Europe and America but they are far from being isolated, drawing widely on all the major trends in the modern music of their day - which is why Leifs continues to be Iceland's most individual and original (and great) composer.

Haukur Tómasson (b.1960) is another Icelandic composer whose music fits comfortably into the mainstream of our time. If you fancy hearing a beautiful, fresh, tonal/modal piece of modern choral music then there's a lot to be said for listening to Haukur's beautiful Fognudur ('Joy'). Folk influences are easy to hear but they are allied to the post-Poulenc, post-Britten bittersweet harmonies and lively rhythms that make much contemporary choral music so immediately attractive. The composer's recent song-cycle/chamber opera Gudrun's Fourth Song, derived from the Scandinavian legends of the Edda, doesn't sound remotely Wagnerian, even in Brynhildur's Wedding Night. Solo violin and soprano play lead roles in the whole work, which uses modality to amplify the keening of the singer and which - from the extracts heard - promises to be a first-rate score. Something of the same soundworld, cast in purely instrumental terms, can be heard in the composer's delightful Flute Concerto.

The music of Jórunn Viðar (b.1918) seems to come from an earlier era, as in this rather French-sounding song, Júnímorgun ('June Morning') and Mamma ætlar að sofna ('Mummy is going to fall asleep'). 

For another burst of Icelandic avant-garderie, please try this highly evocative piece from Atli Heimir Sveinsson (b.1938), Haustmynd II ('Autumn Photo II') - avant-garderie in the service of atmosphere and tied into an attractive folk-like melodic profile which makes it easy to take to. Equally attractive and mixing the modernist with the traditional in a not dissimilar way is Atli Heimir's choral song The sick rose. The composer's ability to sound wholly traditional yet fresh can be judged from this irresistible song.

The music of Árni Björnsson (1905-1995) comes from a very different place, as you'll hear from his Romanza no. 1 for violin and piano, music as firmly in the Romantic tradition as Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson's, but displaying a sensibility that is close to that of the salons of Victorian Age Europe - despite occasional touches of modality. His Three Songs (1. La Belle, 2. Night, 3. Sunkissed Clouds) are winningly simple settings of Icelandic poetry, especially the hymn-like first song - the gem of the set.


For fans of solo flute music, Torkell Sigurbjornsson's Calaïs - a virtuoso piece depicting one of the sons of Boreas, the North Wind - is well worth hearing. This is a wonderfully exotic-sounding extension of the world of Debussy's Syrinx. Though Torkell (b.1938) is a composer with roots in the avant-garde, this piece shows him to be an accessible type of modernist. That is also demonstrated by this beautiful choral piece. Other works show him to be no modernist at all, as with Úr Gylfaginningu ('From Gylfaginning') for soprano and orchestra - a highly dramatic song, setting part of a famous Icelandic legend. This has a magic quality lovers of Sibelius will possibly find to their tastes. Clearly a composer with many sides. 

OK, after so many unfamiliar names it's time, I think, to round things up with a few more works by the great Jón Leifs

His Icelandic Overture (Part Two here) is a fairly early piece but typically unconventional in that it's not in sonata form or any standard overture form; no, it takes the form of eight old Icelandic songs for orchestra culminating in an exciting climatic chorus. Those pounding, accented rhythms towards the close are classic Leifs. There is no development.

Leifs's Landfall for orchestra depicts the sight of Iceland emerging through the mists as the composer returns home by sea. This takes the classic form (for this composer alone) of a slow crescendo with parallel fifths building towards a climax, full of further sharply accented chords and glorious harmonies - a noble vision with occasional shocks! As in the Icelandic Overture, the chorus makes a late but significant entry. 

On a much smaller scale, please take a listen to this little song by Leifs. It's his Lullaby. Now you didn't expect that, did you? There's more to this composer than ear-splitting orchestral spectacles! For songs with orchestra, there are his Two Songs, Op.14a (Moon Song and...Lullaby, yes, in its other guise) and these are just as gentle and individual. But for something really unexpected and absolutely magical by Leifs, you really must listen to his Requiem, Op.33b, a short, moving motet for unaccompanied chorus. The way this simple piece - as simple as a folk-song - moves between minor and major harmonies is deeply moving. Again, you didn't expect that, did you?

Right, that's enough Icelandic music for now. Góða nótt og dreymi þig vel!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Icelandic drama



The music of Iceland's greatest composer, Jón Leifs (1899-1968), includes some of the most individual works ever written. 

I mentioned in an earlier post, Hekla, the piece said to be the loudest piece of classical music of all time - a spectacular depiction of the eruption of Iceland's angriest volcano, scored for four sets of rocks hit with hammers, steel plates, anvils, sirens, cannons, metal chains, choir, large orchestra and organ. It's a thrillingly no-holds-barred piece, intended to stun the listener into awe at the power of nature. 

It isn't alone. From the same cycle of pieces comes Geysir, an orchestral piece that also begins by quietly building anticipation for the explosion of a natural phenomenon through deep sonorities and that mysterious flow of harmony that is characteristic of the composer - a flow based on the movement of  two lines, usually playing in parallel fifths between the orchestral parts. This has deep Icelandic roots, deriving from a type of folk-song called  tvisongur (meaning 'two-song', or duet). This breaks the music free from conventional tonality and creates fresh harmonies that sound strange to our ears, as well as making a wonderful primaeval sound. You won't miss the moment when the explosion of superheated water erupts. Leifs has a genius for conjuring such effects. 

After a violent volcano and an energetic geyser why not visit Iceland's stunning waterfall, Dettifoss - the most powerful in Europe? Leifs takes you to 'see' it with his music - another stunning piece for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Again, we approach the scene of natural magnificence gradually, with a very slow crescendo and tvisongur writing creating an expectation of something to thrill the spirit getting every nearer. As we arrive the chorus sings its hymn - bardic music sung to the rhythms of ancient chants - as the orchestra conjures the violent beauty of the waterfall. The baritone soloist enters, still singing in the tvisongur spirit, against this thunderous backdrop. After a deafening climax, the music draws away becomes reflective for a while but the waterfall looms back into view again for one last, impressive time before Dettifoss vanishes from earshot and silence falls.


From the most turbulent evocation of moving water to an evocation of drift ice in Hafís for chorus and orchestra, where the tvisongur technique is put to use to conjure a scene of bleak beauty. The top orchestral layer of woodwinds gives the music an extra level of chill. The form of the piece is remarkably similar to that of its predecessors, but the climaxes here makes striking use of a feature in Leifs's music that we haven't heard much of yet - the sustained use of harsh, heavy accented rhythms. The chorus is used to shroud the bleak, icy scene in mysticism, though they also partake of these primaeval rhythms at times.

These four pieces show one side of Leifs's music, perhaps somewhat obsessively. As consolation for your ears after such sonic batterings, please have a listen to Leifs's last work, the beautiful and tranquil Consolation, his intermezzo for string orchestra. You will hopefully recognise that the lines have a strong tendency to move in parallel fifths again. Whereas that process created the effect of iciness in Hafís here it conjures warmth, harmony and tenderness.

Suitably rested, let's press on - albeit gently to begin with! If you want to hear another side to Jón Leifs, please try out his Icelandic Folk Dances (Part Two here), where the composer strikes a much more conventional - if highly attractive - note. They will win over anyone who likes a good tune, colourfully orchestrated (here with a little help from Leopold Weninger). They are 'easy listening' after the likes of Dettifoss and Hekla!


Now brace yourselves again for the stupendous Organ Concerto. This consists of three movements, the first ('Introduction') and the finale being short but explosive. At the centre of the concerto, however, stands a Passacaglia which (in the manner to which we have now become accustomed) begins very quietly and only gradually crescendos towards to thunderous climax. Clusters, massing sonorities, swirling organ figuration, battering drums, those parallel chords...all play their part into making this piece such an exhilarating journey. By listening to it after the Icelandic Folk Dances, however, you will hear that the influence of Icelandic folk song can be heard in the melodic shapes of the concerto. 

I'll leave Leifs there for a while, but steel your ears for there will be more to come in the future!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Rachmaninov: The Four Sisters



Back to Russia, one of its favourite sons - Sergei Rachmaninov - and, yes, some of the world's best-loved piano concertos! 

With a fanfare, the First Piano Concerto in F sharp minor  gets going and a cascade of helter-skeltering octaves from the soloist follows straight on. The fireworks have begun! The fanfare returns, heralding the main theme on violins (soon to be repeated by the pianist). This is a vintage Rachmaninov tune - ardently lyrical, rising with yearning them falling back wistfully, frequently moving by sequences, singing on strings and straying across several keys. A shimmering scherzando passage leads to the second subject, of which much the same as was said of the first may be said again. Its yearning appogiaturas are especially attractive. The orchestra kicks off the development section, drawing attention to motific connections between the two main themes before spiralling towards a climax. At this point the soloist gets to sparkle lightly before singing the main theme again gently. A new climax is built towards before we are eased into the recapitulation - the highlight of which is a brief, romantic counter-melody for solo violin. The cadenza is thematically-involved but is primarily a pianist's display ground. The coda is short and brilliant.

The Andante makes me think of a Chopin nocturne, though the lovely tune on which it meditates has something of Tchaikovsky about it. The movement sounds spontaneous (as if improvised) and the restrained accompaniment - at one point consisting of a single bassoon - is imaginative. 

The Finale could not sound more different to begin with - a coruscating caprice with gypsy material and playful rhythms. However, as the piano sparkles the violins anticipate (with the help of a brief counter-melody) the central episode, where lyricism returns, restoring the slow movement's dreamy spirit with a new melody - and what a melody! This new tune is entirely characteristic (see the list a couple of paragraphs ago) and is the star tune of the concerto. It is sung with tender love by the strings and decorated by the soloist. The effect is gorgeous. The piano then takes it over and rhapsodises over it. It's an unforgettable section. The caprice bounces back in after a full close and is reprised - with changes to its scoring and new counter-melodies. The coda is short but extremely brilliant.


Regularly voted as as the public's most-loved piece of Classical music and no longer disdained by the critics (save for a few holdouts!), Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in C minor reigns triumphant. To which state of affairs I say, "Good!"

The opening Moderato puts melody on a pedestal and pays it due homage. The movement is rooted it two great tunes, each lasting many bars, every one of which breathes the air of truly inspired lyricism, and both of which obey the classic rules of Rachmaninovian melody (see above), except that the piano gets the first bite at singing the second subject. The piano, interestingly, does surprisingly little singing, being tasked with accompanying, decorating and elaborating. Given the fiendishness of its role, the poor instrument might begrudge the orchestra is possession of swathes of wonderful melody but I doubt it as no one listening is in any doubt that this is a piano concerto. From the famous sequence of depth-charged chords as the very start, the piano's part is charismatic in the extreme - quite a composition feat. The movement also demonstrates the composer's genius in other fields too -  those of harmony and those of architecture. He cues each move and stages each scene like a master dramatist.

The Adagio begins by artfully modulating from one key (C minor) to another (E major). The piano introduces a lovely accompanying idea and the flute and clarinet float a beautiful melody over it. Ah, heart-easing stuff! The soloist and orchestra then swap roles to re-sing the tune. The tempo quickens and the soloist presents a variation on the theme, with an exciting climax (which is reached twice!). A brief cadenza leads to a further quickening and a larger cadenza then a reprise sung by the strings (yet more beautiful!). The coda is blissful.

The Finale is marked 'Allegro scherzando' and, after another modulating introduction, presents a brilliant theme which tumbles like laughter. Attractive subsidiary ideas lead to another of Rachmaninov's great tunes - one everyone remembers. This perfectly-sculpted lyrical gem is the second subject, first sung by oboes and violas over warm horns and pizzicato strings then re-sung passionately by the piano. A splendidly mysterious passage leads to the main theme's return and some development-by-variation thereon (including a fugato). The second subject's own return follows. The mysterious passage then again results in more play with the main theme and prompts an ultra-romantic climax and the cadenza, out of which bursts the second subject in full glory - a thrilling passage. A short but brilliant coda follows. 


'Rach 3', the Third Piano Concerto in D minor, is now almost as popular as its ever-popular predecessor. Again, "Good!"

The first movement opens to a dotted figure in the orchestra - an idea that persists throughout many of the concerto's pages. In this movement, most obviously, it underpins both the main subjects on their initial presentations and plays a major part in the development section. The main theme is another great melody, encompassing a narrow range of intervals but emotionally as board as a Russian bear hug. The piano sings it first, then the violas, each time interestingly and variously accompanied. A brilliant passage erupts, then a beautiful orchestral passage that sounds as if its come straight out of a Russian Orthodox monastery. This is the bridge to the second subject. This new theme begins march-like with light exchanges between soloist and orchestra but is swiftly restated as a lovely, dreamy cantabile (lovingly accompanied). Rachmaninov lingers over this - rightly so! The development section works the main theme sequentially and highly dramatically before becoming a long, severely virtuosic cadenza. This accompanied cadenza takes under its wing much of the recapitulation, after which only brief reminders of the main themes are needed. It's structurally unconventional but works very convincingly.

The central Intermezzo takes the form off a set of variations on a lovely elegiac theme, introduced on oboe and sounding somewhat Grieg-like in character. Despite that it is a characteristic, falling Rachmaninov tune. The strings then re-sing it, then the piano enters, passionately, tumbling over various harmonies in its keenness to vary the melody, which it does in strongly contrasting moods, ranging from the tender to the wild, reaching magnificent romantic heights along the way. The only episode along the way is a folk-like one for woodwinds dancing over pizzicato strings, but this is swiftly swept away again.

A bravura link carries us into the Finale, where bravura is very much on the menu. The percussive main theme is powered by that persistent rhythm from the opening movement. The second subject begins just as percussively but turns cantabile and into a characteristic Rachmaninov tune within seconds. The movement's central section is given over to a set of elaborate variations on a theme that is audibly a fusion of the main theme with that of the second subject of the first movement. This cyclical turn deepens with the subsequent return of the concerto's opening theme. The Finale's own themes are then recapitulated and whirled towards a highly brilliant coda where the second subject achieves its apotheosis. Glorious!


Falling far behind its sisters in the affections of the public, the Fourth Piano Concerto in G minor shows the composer writing less lushly, less romantically. This is late Rachmaninov. That said, there's still much that will appeal to lovers of the earlier concertos, plus other compensations, and its stock can only continue to climb.

The opening is immediately exciting, with the orchestra leaping upwards to meet a long, characteristic melody (rising and falling) from the piano - an idea immediately repeated. This melody begins as a rising scale and rising scales rush through the following episode. This leads to the beautiful second subject - a languid, lyrical gem of a melody (vaguely Spanish in its sultriness). This is dreamed over gently by the soloist, with winning wind contributions, and is a passage of pure magic. The development section glitters with passage work, momentarily invaded by orchestral memories. There then begins a slow build-up, starting with ominously rising brass, decorated by the piano, which accelerates and intensifies to a grand climax - at which point the second subject soars in superbly on strings. Wow! It is then re-sung, gorgeously, gently, by the flutes and other winds with an arpeggiated accompaniment. If this is, again, magical then so is the return of the main theme, soaring heavenward to a rippling accompaniment - a masterstroke. The abrupt coda that cuts such beauty off feels like a mistake to me. Still, what a glorious movement. It's in no way inferior to its equivalents in the well-known concertos. 

The central Largo is much more chaste, taking a simple theme - which no review must neglect to point out has a certain resemblance to 'Three Blind Mice' - and decorating it in gentle exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The theme is ever-present. Even the sudden eruption that is the central agitato is based on it. A rising and falling string counter-melody provides a momentary contrast of material. The movement ends on a half close, which seems apt for such understated but beautiful writing.

The Finale is, at times, bound to remind the listener of Prokofiev in its dry but brightly-coloured vivacity and percussive scherzando style. Where is the big tune? Even Prokofiev usually gives up one! Alas, there's no big tune here, which might disconcert and disappoint some listeners. There is an episode where a fanfare figure is answered by a romantic horn call and a lyrical melody rises fleetingly in response - but 'fleeting' is the word for this episode, as it is for the dreamy interlude midway. Elsewhere it's all pretty much brilliance and punchiness. What a striking, highly imaginative movement this is - even if it's not what you might be expecting.

If you don't know the Fourth Concerto, please give it a try. I doubt you'll regret doing so!