Tuesday, 31 July 2012

I want my ninth symphony to be like this!

Playing through the slow movement of a particular symphony ("with wallowing enthusiasm") Brahms said, "I want my ninth symphony to be like this!

The same movement of the same symphony was described in Cosima Wagner's diaries, reflecting her husband's feelings, as "one of the loveliest things ever written; and how wonderful it sounds!"

What slow movement united Wagner and Brahms in enthusiasm? The slow movement from Haydn's Symphony No.88 in G major.

I have a fond memory of this symphony myself. As a late teenager unfamiliar with much classical music I heard it on the radio while doing by filial duties and washing up after Christmas dinner and was bowled over by the whole piece. It remains a favourite Haydn symphony to this day.

It begins with an attention-grabbing slow introduction full of pregnant pauses that alternates short staccato phrases with softer ones. 

The exuberant main allegro is largely monothematic, with the second subject being a variant of the first. Most of the subsidiary themes also grow out of the main theme. The development section contains a lot of energetic counterpoint and the whole movement has a symphonic sweep that keeps the attention firmly fixed. 

That peaceful largo slow movement begins by sharing its beautiful theme between solo oboe and cello but is soon repeated with a richer accompaniment and the addition of a countermelody from the first violins. 

A later repetition of the tune is even more richly scored with first violins and flute getting the melody before returning it to the cello and oboe. As you will hear, the tune barely changes yet Haydn so artfully changes the accompanying figures that the attention never flags. There are some surprises in this movement too!

The Minuet is a breath of boisterous country air, making hay with its opening five-note figure. It also features a peasant-style trio complete with open fifths - and, most unusually, parallel fourths - played (bagpipe-style) by violas and bassoon. It is one of the composer's most delightful movements.

The finale returns to the exuberant spirit of the opening movement and is also dominated by its main theme. Again tunefulness meets counterpoint as Haydn sends his theme through a dramatic development section featuring learned canons before the movement wittily shrinks down to two notes...all the better to keep you guessing as to when the recapitulation is actually going to be begin.

If you don't know it I hope it will bowl you over too.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Venezuela 2: The Nationalists

Continuing my journey through the history of Venezuelan classical music (and by-passing Reynaldo Hahn, who I've considered elsewhere), the country's early 20th century composers continued to write in a simple and popular style, winning themselves a following in the process.

Francisco de Paula Aguirre (1875–1939) was one such composer, penning songs, serenades and waltzes - including the catchy and colourful waltz Dama Antañona and the joropo Amalia. (A joropo is a particularly Venezuelan folk dance, with Creole roots). Another was Vicente Emilio Sojo (1887-1974), founder of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, arranger of large numbers of his nation's folksongs and, thus, the founder of the nationalist movement in Venezuelan music. He wrote such pleasing pieces as the 5 Venezuelan Pieces (so good as to be recorded by John Williams - 1,2,3,4,5). Carlos Bonnet (1892-1983), composer of the waltz La Partida, also falls into this category - as does Laudelino Mejías (1893-1963), composer of the nostalgic waltz ConticinioMoisés Moleiro (1904-1979), composer of the brilliant Joropo; and guitarist Antonio Lauro (1917-1986), composer of many a waltz named after women, such as Ana Cristina, Natalia and María Carolina, plus the Valses Venezolanos

A different kettle of fish is to follow. With Juan Bautista Plaza (1898–1965) and his Fuga Criolla for string orchestra (here arranged for percussion) we reach a composer who, with Villa Lobos-like relish, is able to fuse Bachian counterpoint with folk rhythms to create something delightful - and nationalistic. The nationalist impulse can also be heard in the Sonatina Venezolana, a piece the pianist Claudio Arrau brought to international attention. There are many excellent works by this composer. The companion to the Fuga Criolla, the Fuga Romantica, for example, is a fine contrapuntal take on a romantic-sounding theme and demonstrates that Plaza is a composer of real stature. I think you will also enjoy his symphonic poems El picacho abrupto ('The Sharp Peak', evoking a climb in the mountains'), Campanas de Pascua ('Easter Bells') and Vigilia ('Vigil'), plus the beautiful choral/orchestral tribute to Simón Bolívar, Las Horas. Plaza studied in Rome and his music shows the effects of a good European education. If any strand stands out it's the Neo-Classicism element found in several of his pieces, heard most clearly in his Piano Sonata - though it can also be heard in the Wedding March written for the his daughters' weddings in 1959. Other earlier, more traditional piano pieces you might care to sample are the impressive Romance in F, the Minué melancólico and the charming Tres piezas sobre temas de L.E.B. To end this introduction to this first-rate Venezuelan composer Juan Bautista Plaza, please try a work where the nationalist and the Neo-Classical come together most attractively - Cuatro Ritmos de Danza, folk-like pieces written on tunes of the composer's own invention. 

For colourful orchestral nationalism, a fine place to begin would be with the delightful symphonic suite Santa Cruz de Pacairigua by Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984) - a bright, busy orchestral picture-postcard comparable with those being written by composers like Moncayo in Mexico. The piece was written to honour the construction of a church and contains several folk-dance melodies, a lyrical Venezuelan waltz and plainchant. It's a treat of a piece. The symphonic poem El Río de las Siete Estrellas ('The River of the Seven Stars') is a sultry tale of love, an Indian maiden (representing by a theme heard straight away on the flute), mythology, stars (evoked by the celesta) volcanoes, battles (drums and fanfares) and Venezuelan patriotism (a snatch of the country's national anthem) and again shows Castellanos to be an accomplished, colourful and entertaining composer. From hearing it I would say that he knew his Ravel. 

Antonio Estévez (1916-1988) was another leading Venezuelan nationalist composer; indeed, he is considered the man who did for his country's music what Copland, Chávez and Ginastera did in their respective countries. His most famous work is the Cantata Criolla of 1954, a work for tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra. The piece evokes the llanos (plains) of Venezuela and a singing competition between a folk singer and the devil. Another rewarding piece by Estévez is Mediodía en el Llano ('Noon on the Plain') - an atmospheric symphonic poem depicting dawn, noon and evening on the llanos.

Inocente Carreño (1919-) is best known for the patriotic symphonic poem Margariteña (Pt.2 here), a piece that opens rather like a Vaughan Williams rhapsody and is full of Venezuelan folksong and impressionistic orchestral colour. The main folk tune ('Margarita is a tear') is used rather in the manner of Kodály as a recurring device, heard in various guises and moods between appearances by other melodies. It is a high-quality piece of music. As orchestral songs are among the tastiest forms in classical music, I can safely also recommend the lovely Canciones Francesas for soprano and orchestra and for that other side of Venezuelan music - the one that loves guitars - please try the Suite para guitarra en tres movimientos, written around the time of Margariteña, a piece guitar-lovers across the world would take to. 

With the composers that follow Inocente Carreño we enter the world of contemporary music (in all its many shades), which will wait for another post. This post has taught me, again, that just because a country's classical tradition is not well known in the United Kingdom does not mean that it isn't full of fabulous music that should be known. There are some class acts among this set of Venezuelan composers. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Being Rude about Rued

Tonight's BBC Prom featured the first UK performance of the Eleventh Symphony, Ixion by the strange Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) - a somewhat belated première of a piece written in 1945. It's a 6-minute symphony and conductor Thomas Dausgaard was surely correct to place it as the first item in the concert, as if it were an overture. 

I heard the piece a few years ago and was struck by how odd it was then. I sought it out because (being a curious cat) the esteemed critic and Nordic music ambassador Robert Layton has been somewhat less than complimentary about it, describing it as "ungainly and unschooled. Its waltz theme, an idea of breathtaking and appalling banality, is given no fewer than 11 times and emphatically does not improve with repetition". A review like that is pure catnip to me. I had to hear it for myself. 

Now I will admit to liking the piece, doubtless beyond reason. I didn't hear tonight - or in Mr. Layton's review - any explanation of why the piece should repeat the same tune over and over and over again. Surely the sub-title is significant? Ixion was the Greek mythological figure whose punishment by Zeus was to be bound to an eternally-spinning wheel of fire. Round and round that wheel goes, forever the same however many turns it makes - just like that waltz theme! 

If you notice though, the theme may stay the same but (Glinka-like) the context changes - the tune is constantly being ratcheted upwards keywise but always seem to end up back where it started - like another unlucky ancient Greek figure, Sisyphus, condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down again, and to keep doing so for eternity. Listen for the entry of the four Wagnerian tubas sounding their deep long notes as if to say 'this is going to go on for ever!!' 

Now, you may or may not share my odd affection for the Eleventh Symphony, but there's another piece - the piece Rued Langgaard is best known for - that is so strange, imaginative and innovative that I suspect you will gasp when you first hear it (for very different reasons) - The Music of the Spheres from 1918. A concert with this 40-minute score for two orchestras (one distant), with organ and brief contributions from a soprano soloist and chorus, in one half and Holst's The Planets in another would be quite an evening out for audiences. Add in Scriabin's Prometheus and you would have an evening that would live in the memory forever. 

After it was rediscovered in the 1960s György Ligeti was astonished to find that some of his own pioneering avant-garde methods (specifically 'cloud-clusters') has been anticipated nearly half a century earlier. "So after all, I’m only a follower of Langgaard", he joked. The piece also uses hypnotic repetitions in a way that could be seen to predict Minimalism and uses spatial effects in ways anticipating Stockhausen's Gruppen (at a push!!). It employs other techniques - such as quiet string glissandi and the idea of playing on the strings inside a piano - which closely parallel the innovations of Henry Cowell (then also getting into his stride). Other passages vividly remind me of another great American original, Charles Ives. The ultra-advanced aspects of The Music of the Spheres can be over-emphasised though. It also simultaneously projects aspects of late-Romanticism, Impressionism, Scriabinesque mysticism and Schoenbergian early-Expressionism - most of the significant trends of the age. It remains resolutely tonal too. 

If you've never heard the piece before please don't resist the urge to try it out (even if you hated Ixion). The Music of the Spheres always goes down a storm with modern audiences. I usually end up being drawn to listen to it again every couple of years.

Zoltán Kodály: Variations on Hungarian Folksongs

I had a little dose of insomnia a few years ago and found that a tune I'd heard one day just wouldn't stop going round my head, again and again and again...and again. Thankfully, it was a very beautiful tune. It was the melody of Zoltán Kodály's little folksong-based choral piece Esti dal ('Evening Song'). I think you too might easily fall under its spell, especially given the way the composer initially sets it to a delightful hummed accompaniment. 

Kodály's output of short choral pieces contain many other such gems. There's his spirited Táncnóta ('Dancing Song'), the recorder-accompaniment Karácsonyi pásztortánc ('Christmas Shepherds' Dance'), Szép könyörgés ('Beseeching'), Adventi dal ('Advent Song',  with a tune you might well recognise) and, to return us to the mood in which we began, Hegyi Ejszakak ('Mountain Nights') and Este ('Summer'). As you can hear from just these pieces, melody - song-like melody - was at the heart of music for this composer.

Just as much as his great friend Béla Bartók, Kodály was soaked in the spirit of folk music. Bartók, of course, looked across much of Eastern Europe and even beyond for inspiration while Kodály stuck closer to home, Hungary. In many ways, Kodály is Hungary's answer to my country's Vaughan Williams - a figure dear to many of his countrymen's hearts, though some criticise him as being (consequently) a bit too parochial. Well, any Hungarians who still worry about Kodály being considered too parochial (or are those days now gone?) need not do so. His music travels abroad beautifully and speaks to anyone prepared to listen to it. 

What Bartók and Kodály sought to do was to get to the authentic folk music of the Hungarian countryside and its deep, old melodies rather than (as Brahms and Liszt had done) draw on the pretend-folk music of the urban gypsy entertainers. That is not to say that they were anti-gypsy as, perhaps ironically, those very urban gypsy entertainers were the inspiration behind one of the orchestral pieces for which Kodály is best known - his affection portrayal of a famous gypsy orchestra from his childhood, the Galántai táncok ('Dances of Galanta'). The piece blends the form of a rondo ('a gypsy rondo'!) with that of the old slow-fast verbunkos familiar from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. The recurring theme is first heard played by a solo clarinet after a short cadenza-like passage - a melody of great beauty, which the strings then take up passionately as the piece expands into an andante maestoso. The fast section contains a series of contrasted dances, gaining in excitement and brilliance as they proceed - with, of course, reminders of the recurring theme in between. It's hard not to get swept up in a piece of such melodic strength and orchestral colour. 

You may know that piece already. I very much doubt you'll know Kállai kettős ('Double Dance from Kálló'), a work from chorus and orchestra. This is a later work (from 1950) where Kodály again draws on gypsy music. The 'Double Dance' is one of those where you sing and dance at the same time and is named after a small town in north-east Hungary called Nagykálló. The piece has proved a delightful discovery for me. It's got colour, catchy tunes in various moods and infectious rhythms.

Still, it is the influence of those old Hungarian peasant songs and dances that is the heart of Kodály's music - the side represented by the Marosszéki táncok ('Dances of Marosszék), a medley of tunes from eastern Hungary found (by the composer) to have ancient roots in Transylvania. The original version was for piano and makes the piece's cyclic form - not far removed from that of the Dances of Galanta - even clearer than in the orchestral version, though both move towards a festive ending and the earthy orchestral colours give the Marosszék pieces a tang distinct from those of Galanta. The recurring melody is a particularly seductive one.If you liked the Dances of Marosszék you will surely also like Mátrai Képek ('Mátra Pictures'), a choral piece that lovers of the folksong-arranging side of Bartók are also likely to relish. The tunes are fabulous and the way Kodály counterpoints them with other melodies is evidence of his consummate artistry - as is the remarkable contrapuntal writing contained in  Jézus és a kufárok ('Jesus and the Traders'), where there are canons and fugal passages - suggesting that Kodály, like Bartók, was keeping in spirit with the contrapuntal bent of the age. This piece tells the gospel story of Jesus clearing  the traders from the temple. 

Kodály wrote three large-scale choral works, beginning with the noble and dramatic Psalmus Hungaricus, a 1923 work for solo tenor, chorus and orchestra setting a 16th Century Hungarian version of Psalm 55. This great piece, written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pesth, is another of those works shaped with a rondo-like structure and a recurring theme stamped with the character of Hungarian folksong. Psalmus Hungaricus is straightforwardly expressive, full of feeling and largely sticks to homophony. Reflecting his deepening interest in Renaissance polyphony, the second of these works, the Budavári Te Deum of 1936, contains plenty of polyphonic writing - though there's also Gregorian-style chant - including fugal passages. It is a splendid piece, full of fire and blistering trumpet fanfares. Finally came the not-so-brief Missa Brevis - a work when the folksong influence is felt less strongly and his interest in Palestrina-style polyphony even more strongly. If this feels like an usually dark work, well, it was written and later orchestrated during the years of the Second World War. 

Kodály's biggest hit begins with a sneeze (achieved through a blend of string pizzicati, wind trills and an uprushing chromatic swirl) - yes, it's the Háry János suite, drawn from the 1926 singspiel (a spoken word drama with musical interludes) that went down such a storm with Hungarians. (The sneeze means the story must be true!) There are six delightful movements:

1. Prelude: The Fairy-Tale Begins - the sneeze, and the slow rise of a Hungarian melody.
2. Viennese Musical Clock - a delicious 'mechanical' number, complete with bells and percussion.
3. Song - a lyrical movement, with solos for viola and clarinet.
4. Battle and Defeat of Napoleon - a brilliantly-scored burlesque. 
5. Intermezzo - a very catchy tune, listen out for the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer).
6. Entrance of the Emperor and His Court - full of pomp and circumstance.

Now, besides such crowd-pleasing music and so much other music for amateur choirs/school children to sing, the younger Kodály had a somewhat different side. Have you ever heard his Sonata for solo cello of 1915? This is a work whose mastery has placed it, in many cellists' eyes, as being the best work for solo cello since the six masterpieces of J.S. Bach. It is not an easy listen, having moments of some truculence, but its passion and intellectual power are compelling. It sounds so rich because, apparently, the two bottom strings of the instrument are lowered by a semitone giving rise to new opportunities for deep and resonant chords. Kodály draws on many of the key techniques open to cellists - glissandi, harmonics, sul ponticello - to add to that richness. The work's melodies, of course, draw on the shapes of Hungarian folkmusic and the last of the three movements sounds like a one-man folk orchestra in action! Yes, the younger Kodály was writing the sort of piece that we might more readily associate with Bartók in 1915, some 29 years before the latter's mighty and comparable Sonata for solo violin. 

If that's whetted you appetite for the tougher early chamber music of our man, then please move straight on to the Duo for Violin and Cello, a rhapsodic work with a strong Hungarian folk flavour that is worthy of a place alongside Ravel's well-known duo sonata. At its heart is an intense Adagio. It is quite remarkable that only two instruments are playing, as Kodály has written for them in such a way that they sound (at times) more like a string orchestra. From there you might like to try some of the easier-on-the-ear chamber works that pre-date these classics - such as the rapturous Adagio for cello and piano, which features a lovely passage where the cellist floats like a swan over the piano's rippling accompaniment, or the pleasure-giving Sonata for Cello and Piano, another rhapsodic work with a strong air of improvisation and a sighing slow movement. (A later stab at another such sonata in the early 1920s gave rise to the agreeable Sonatina for Cello and Piano). 

What of solo piano music? Well, Kodály later came to distrust the instrument as being one that excluded ordinary people from music-making but early on he was far from averse to using it - and writing excellent music for it. Listening to how the composer's language developed through the Nine Pieces for Piano, Op. 3 and the more innovative Seven Piano Pieces, Op.11 shows how the composer was striving to incorporate new strains into old Romantic forms. As with Bartók, Debussy's influence was growing at this time and can be felt alongside folksong. A direct homage to the Frenchman can be heard in the lovely Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussywhilst a glimpse of Kodály's earliest Romanticism can be heard in the tiny , charming Valsette

All of which brings me back to Kodály's orchestral music and the composer's graduation piece, Nyári este ('Summer Evening'). The melodies are already modal, the arabesques of folk music are already present, the Hungarian character is growing, but also here in this lush piece of pastoral scene-painting can be heard the shades of Romanticism and French impressionism. I suspect you'll like this lyrical score. 

Apparently as well-known to Hungarians as Green Sleeves is to us Brits, The Peacock ('Felszállott a pava') provided the starting point for one of his later orchestral pieces, the Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, The Peacock. It is a beautiful score that, despite using variation form, has something of a symphonic feel to it, especially given that it falls into three basic sections. The theme is presented in the slow introduction, then sixteen variations and a festive finale follow. There is certainly nothing dry about it. It sings from the heart - as so much of Kodály's works do. From the same year came the Concerto for Orchestra (predating Bartók's by five years), another highly entertaining work that doesn't get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It combines exuberance with tenderness, pointed rhythms with lyricism. This work seems to be about as close as Kodály ever got to Hindemith's take on Neo-Classicism. 

And, finally, to return to where I began...with Kodály's choral miniatures..., please try his jubilant homage to the  Hungarian nation A magyarokhoz, and the classic Túrót eszik a cigány ('See the Gypsies Munching Cheese'), and I think you'll agree with me that Zoltán Kodály is one of the most joy-provoking composers of the last century. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Melodies from Mount Olympus

Today is the opening day of the London Olympics 2012. What will we Brits do with the opening ceremony? Tune in tonight and find out!

There will doubtless be a part for classical music in the event. Classical music has had quite an interesting history of association with the modern Olympics and from 1912 through until 1948, there was even a music competition complete with gold, silver and bronze medals for the best pieces. 

"Complete with..." isn't perhaps the right phrase. In 1912 only a gold medal was awarded to the Italian Riccardo Barthelemy for his Olympic Triumphal March. In 1920 it was gold for the Belgian Georges Monier for Olympique and silver for the Italian Oreste Riva for his Marcia trionfale but no bronze. In 1924 the jury  (which included Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and d'Indy!) couldn't reach a decision, so no medals were given at all. In 1928 they did give out a medal but, bizarrely (and rather insultingly, I'd have thought) it was a mere bronze, awarded to the (suitably damned-with-faint-praise) Rudolph Simonsen of Denmark for his Symphony No.2, Hellas (a substantial piece, not remotely what you might be expecting - so please try it!). So far you will have noticed that none of these composers is a familiar name. The familiar names (as in 1924) sat on the juries. The Olympics used to take the idea of the Games being a competition for amateurs very seriously. The one exception to win an Olympic medal was the great Czech composer Josef Suk for his toe-tapping patriotic march Into a New Life (a delightful piece) in 1932. In another bemusing snub, Suk was merely given a silver medal. No gold was given that year! 

Things changed in 1936 when the Nazis took charge of the Olympics - more music competitions, more medals, more music. Guess what? Germany won 4 out of the 6 medals awarded by the largely German jury! Paul Höffer (who?) of Germany won gold for his Olympic VowKurt Thomas (who?) of Germany won silver for his Olympic Cantata and Harald Genzmer (who?) of Germany won bronze for his The Runner. A slightly more familiar name, Werner Egk of...well, I'm sure you can guess where!...won gold in the Orchestral category for his Olympic Festive Music, while Lino Liviabella of fellow Axis power Italy won silver for The Victor and Jaroslav Křička of Czechoslovakia got the bronze with his Mountain Suite. The Berlin Olympics of 1936, incidentally, saw a very great composer enter the scene with Richard Strauss providing an Olympic Hymn for the opening ceremony. Strauss wasn't exactly enthusiastic about it, writing to his friend and librettist, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, "I am whiling away the dull days of advent by composing an Olympic Hymn for the proles - I of all people, who despise sports." I'd say the piece is pure hack-work, though the ending is not bad. 

The last London Olympics of 1948 opened with an ode, Non Nobis Domine, by Britain's very own Roger Quilter (plus a blast of the Hallelujah chorus) and saw the Pole Zbigniew Turski vault into the gold medal position in the competition for his Olympic Symphony, with a Canadian Jean Weinzweig and a Finn  Kalervo Tuukkanen winning silvers and the three bronzes going to two Italians and a Dane.

At that point the difficulty of deciding if an artist was an amateur or a professional got too much for the Olympic organisers and the competition was dropped. 

In 1958, the International Olympic Committee decided to adopt a piece originally written for the 1896 Games (the first modern Olympics) by the Greek opera composer Spyridon Samaras, the Olympic Hymn ("Immortal spirit of antiquity"), as its permanent anthem. It's a thoroughly grand operatic chorus.

In researching this post, I kept reading mentions of a Hymn to Apollo written for the 1894 Olympic Congress by one of my favourite composers, Gabriel Fauré. I never knew such a piece existed as it never appears in work lists for the composer. Was it lost? Apparently not, as the IMSLP site has a score of it. Having just played it through on the piano, it sounds like a real beauty - a modal piece in 5/4 time. The tune is not Fauré's own. It's a melody that was written in Ancient Athens:

Hopefully someone will record it one day and someone else will add it to his list of works.

In the 1960s American T.V. companies began using a piece called Bugler's Dream by the French-American Leo Arnauld in their coverage of the Olympic Games. John Williams co-opted this theme and used it in his own Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written for the 1984 Los Angeles games. He has written music for others Olympiads - Olympic Spirit for Seoul in 1988 and Summon the Heroes for Atlanta in 1996. John Williams is made for the Olympics! Other music that came out of L.A. includes Philip Glass's The Olympian and out of Atlanta sprang Michael Torke's bright-eyed Javelin. Glass must have caught the bug as he was back for Athens in 2004, with the ambitious, multi-movement Orion.

So will there be any music by a living British composer at tonight's opening ceremony in London? We'll see. Presumably it won't just be Elgar's Nimrod. We have to be more original than that!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Angels and Birds

Over the last couple of decades the name of Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928) has become familiar to audiences outside Finland, such that his music seems to have rather eclipsed his younger compatriots - especially here in the United Kingdom. With its long melodies and radiantly tonal harmonies, his music is just the sort of emotionally satisfying thing that goes down well with audiences and critics in these post-avant garde days. Add in the appeal of 'angels' as a concept and his success is easily understood. 

I'll try to sum up Rautavaara's development as a composer, as far as I understand it: He began as a tonal composer, then in the mid '50s embraced serialism (albeit a flexible, accessible brand of serialism with plenty of touches of tonality) before from the mid '6os on making a determined attempt to fuse serialism with tonality - an attempt that was fully achieved by the mid '8os and has remained the hallmark of his style ever since. I have to say that the serial character of his post-'6os pieces is something you can very easily miss. It usually sounds purely tonal to me. 

If there's one work we hear more than any other by Einojuhani Rautavaara it's his 'concerto for birds and orchestra' Cantus arcticus from 1972, a work I have to say I never tire of re-hearing. The piece is an orchestral work but also uses taped bird song, recorded by the composer himself in the northern marshes of Finland. The birds are the soloists in the 'concerto'. As you will hear, if you aren't already familiar with this beautiful masterpiece, the result is anything but gimmicky. When I first heard it, the piece immediately appealed to me. Its language reminded me a little of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams (two composers close to my heart) but it has a character that is unique to this composer. 

The first movement, The Bog, begins with wheeling flutes flying in, unaccompanied. As the taped birds enter the scene, trills pervade the winds, brass honk and a plaintive two-note call is heard. The whole bog is quivering with birds and anticipation. The strings enter with the beautiful, majestic melody that stands at the heart of this great movement.This modal tune, which seems to stand for nature in all its glory, is then re-sung by the brass with magical sprinklings of percussion then re-harmonised sumptuously as the climax is approached. Calm floats in as the brass and percussion begin the melody's wind-down and the soulful sound of a solo cello is heard before the tune ebbs away back into the melancholy opening music. 

The central movement, Melancholy, opens to taped birds along (doleful-sounding ones) before the strings enter with ethereal, elegiac beauty. (Comparisons to the Vaughan Williams of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, or Alan Hovhaness, strike me most strongly here). The harmonies you will hear during this movement are especially characteristic of the composer and you will hear their like again later in this post (if you so choose!). 

The title of the third movement, Swans migrating, might well make you think of the finale of Sibelius's Fifth symphony, which also evoked the majesty of swans in flight over the Finnish lakes. It starts with a marvellous clamour of taped birds, out of which emerges another anticipatory quiver of string and woodwind phrases, recalling those of the first movement. This too grows into a clamour and, in time, through it soars another glorious modal tune, making its first appearance on brass and rising as it changes colour (at one stage featuring a Hovhaness-like trumpet), lifting at least this particular listener into a state of delight. The ebbing-away that follows is both subtle and atmospheric.

If you don't already know it I hope you will give it a listen and hope even more that you will enjoy it as much as I (and many, many others) enjoy it.

The other work that has swept all before it is the Seventh Symphony, 'Angel of Light' from 1994. When the composer went global in the late '90s this was at the forefront of his march to fame. It seems to me to be one of Rautavaara's more Sibelius-like symphonies - a fact that would endear it to me straight away! 

In the first movement, Tranquillo,  an elegiac melody grows out of a pool of strings and glinting glockenspiel and vibraphone, chiming at delicious harmonic tangents. The melody spreads through the strings and is reflected through constantly changing harmonies - harmonies that are so characteristic of this composer. A measure of tension enters the music and a powerful passage of climactic writing brings in the brass and woodwinds - a passage that has what seems (to me) like a curious echo of the fall of Valhalla in Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The winds remain and help explore the main melody, as a development section might do. This gentle, lovely passage might well remind you at times of Sibelius and at times of the Cantus arcticus. A glorious return of the 'Valhalla' music leads to the recapitulation of the main melody. 

The scherzo's framing sections are very different and show a streak of Shostakovich-style jeering on winds and xylophone. These gargoyle-like sections enclose music far more typical of he symphony as a whole, with slower yet still mobile writing sending arching string melodies through characteristic chord sequences.

Bearing the marking Come un sogno ('Like a dream'), the slow movement carries us into an unworldly, angelic place and is the symphony's still centre. It is sublime. The violins play a wide-spun, hymn-like melody and send it through more of those characteristic radiant harmonies. Horn and woodwind later introduce a pastoral spirit into this serene music. A very short climax leads to the loveliest stretch of all when the opening section returns with a solo violin playing the melody against enchanting shimmerings from woodwinds. Utter magic!

The Pesante finale opens with a stern brass fanfare before the strings embark on another melody and begin helping its tendrils spread, adding florid woodwind decoration. Only when the brass enter does the movement take off. Here nobility sings out against glorious swirls, akin to the swirls of bird calls around the modal melody of Cantus arcticus. It sounds magnificent, but the symphony is not to end triumphantly; instead it vanishes into mystery. 

Angel of Light can stand for the late style of Rautavaara and Cantus arcticus as representative of the pieces written during the composer's evolution to that late style. What of his serialist pieces and the works that preceded them? 

As representative of the early Rautavaara, the Suite for Strings of 1952 shows a composer interested in folk music and writing in the stylistic orbit of those great composers who also exalted folk music - shades of Kodaly, Bartok, Holst, Vaughan Williams - plus a tinge of Stravinskyan neo-Classicism. The tune of the central Andante sounds strikingly like the sort of melody found throughout the output of Kodaly. 

Representing the serialist phase, step forward the mighty Third Symphony of 1961.

The opening is an astonishing echo of the opening of Bruckner's Fourth ('Romantic') - the same tremolo, the same horn call (at least for a few notes) - over which Rautavaarian woodwinds play bird calls (anticipating Cantus arcticus). That Bruckner symphony seems to be the inspiration for this masterpiece of serial symphonism. 'Serial' it may be, being based as it is on a typical 12-note row, but do you think it sounds 'serialist'? It doesn't sound serial to me I have to say; no, it sounds instea like a large-scale Romantic symphony in the mould of Bruckner - or Mahler - with plenty for lovers of opulent, emotional, melody-driven music to sink their teeth into and the harmonic rules are clearly written so that as much tonality can flood into the music as possible. By the 8.00 mark into the first movement, you can hear waves of harmony that seem to combine those characteristic of the composer's later style with those of Bruckner - a fascinating mix. 

The slow movement, containing more bird calls, unfolds a stream of elegiac melody and is the introspective heart of the symphony, going into some quite anxious places whilst remaining beautiful. 

The ghost of Bruckner's scherzi haunts the third movement though the movement soon ventures into stranger, chromatic territory, with more of the composer's swirling woodwind figuration playing their part. There's a countryside feel to some of its passages too. It is music that should keep you on the edge of your seat throughout - as should the finale. 

The Bruckner 'Romantic' horn call returns in this magnificent closing movement - a movement that lifts some of the tension generated by the other movements and combines heroic excitement with good humour. There is a particularly close encounter with the third movement of Bruckner's Ninth at one of the climaxes. (If you know that symphony you are bound to spot it). Characteristically, there isn't quite the ending you would expect after the grand sweep of the movement up to that point. 

Finland's great living composer? A lot of people seem to think so - and I'm one of them!

Nothing to Heckel at here

Paul Hindemith loved writing pieces for performers of unusual instruments, helping them to build a repertoire. I've written before about his piece for trautonium, but there's also a piece featuring the heckelphone - a woodwind instrument close to the oboe family but operating in a lower register and sometimes sounding a bit clarinet-ish. The Trio for Heckelphone, Viola and Piano, Op.47 of 1928 is such a personable work (and gets better with each hearing), so it's worth listening to for reasons over than mere curiosity. 

The composer delays introducing the heckelphone, beginning the first of the Trio's two movements with a substantial piano solo, labelled by the composer as a Recitative but really a playfully contrapuntal piece of writing. The heckelphone appears, along with the viola, as we enter the lovely Arioso, where it sings an expressive melody notable for its plunging sevenths to the accompaniment of the piano. The latter introduces the section's attractive second subject with its pleasing chromatic touches. The viola joins the heckelphone for the movement's closing Duet - a fast, fun passage with some of the abandon of Ives's violin sonatas. 

Hindemith calls his second movement a Potpourri - as, indeed, it is. Its first section gives us a jaunty tune over a perpetual accompaniment, with heckelphone, viola and piano weaving the tune around each other in exuberant counterpoint. Hindemith plays this delightful game for some time, changing its textures, before the music becomes swiftly fugal. The piano then leads us into pastures new, where the strictness of contrapuntal writing gives way to the freedom of toccata-style writing. and the others follow cheerfully before everything ends with a brilliant coda. 

Typically, despite the dissonances and the harmonic daringness, the composer's music still manages to sound diatonic. It is far from atonality.

Please try and see what you think.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


I know that operas are meant to be seen as much as they are meant to be heard, but many people experience opera through recordings these days in the comfort of their own homes and some operas make for better home listening than others. One opera that is perfect for home listening is Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana ('Rustic Chivalry'), a piece of which I had rather low expectations...until I heard it. It's a piece that bowled me over. Why? Well, the tunes are nearly all excellent, full of Italian passion and lyricism, and stick in the memory. The vigour of their presentation makes them even more compelling, as does Mascagni's sense of pace and his almost infallible scoring (perhaps one or two too many cymbal crashes at climaxes!). 

The orchestra is a big player in the opera, sharing centre stage (for the listener) with the singers and chorus; indeed, the early stages of Cav (as it's popularly known) are something of an orchestral suite, despite the off-stage tenor and the extended chorus. The orchestra continues to contribute to the story-telling and atmosphere-creating throughout and Mascagni makes much use of recurring passages and, yes, leitmotifs

The prelude introduces us to tunes we will thrill to later in the opera before we hear the off-stage tenor (Turiddu) singing his serenade-like Siciliano"O Lola, bianca come fior di spino" ('O Lola, fair as a smiling flower') - which is everything that an off-stage Italian tenor aria should be! The curtain goes up on the opening crowd scene, a duet for chorus and orchestra - "Gli aranci olezzano sui verdi margini" ('Sweet is the air with the blossoms of oranges'), where the women sing a lovely tune and the men enter singing another tune before the whole is crowned with a wonderful weaving of tunes and voice types (both vocal and instrumental). After a tuneful 'duet-recitative' for Santuzza (soprano) and Mamma Lucia (contralto), Alfio (baritone) and the chorus sing a gloriously tuneful, Bizet-like number, "Il cavallo scalpita" ('Gayly moves the tramping horse'), complete with whip-cracks!

The richness of the 'Easter Hymn' scene, which features an off-stage choir (including children) and organ (the congregation inside the church), provides an atmospheric background for Santuzza and the on-stage crowd to sing the superb hymn, "Innegiamo, il Signor non e morto" ('Let us sing of the Lord now victorious') - a plum tune that is as rousing as a fine Verdi patriotic chorus. The tune lingers delightfully in the orchestra at the start of the next number, Santuzza's no-less-superb "Voi lo sapete" ('Now you shall know'), a passionate and dramatic aria that gives us two great tunes - one for the singer, one for the orchestra - and which showcases all of Mascagni's ingenuity. 

The next scene turns from a duet (Turiddu and Santuzza) into a trio (with Lola (mezzo-soprano) and back again. The first duet, "Battimi, insultami, t’amo e perdono" ('Beat me, insult me, I still love and forgive you'), has a particularly gripping climax with another powerful tune driving it on. The second duet, "No, no, Turiddu, rimani, rimani, ancora-Abbandonarmi dunque tu vuoi?" (No, no, Turiddu! Remain with me now and forever! Love me again! How can you forsake me?), is the apotheosis of passion and a chance to revel again in a tune first heard in the prelude. This duet highlights the composer's love of making his voices combine in unison for the climactic phrases and for following dramatic pauses with sweetness. It may not be overly subtle but it is emotionally highly satisfying. 

The short but dramatic scene between Santuzza and Alfio combines punchy recitative with a melodically-fine duet. Harmonically this opera is rarely found far from the expected but is always successful in its effect, as in this scene. 

What follows is the famous Intermezzo, which opens with beautiful high string writing (with shades of Lohengrin), soon joined by a solo flute, before launching a warm, middle-register tune (a tune of very high quality) to harp accompaniment. 

Like the opera itself, I shall now move swiftly to the denouement. A charming chorus is swiftly followed by Turiddu's drinking song, "Viva, I vivo spumeggiante" ('Hail! The ruby wine now flowing'). Why do drinking songs so often bring out the best in composers? The scene between the rutting stages (Turiddu and Alfio) is musically the least interesting but the magical theme on high tremolo strings that start's Turiddu's "Mamma, quel vino e generoso" returns us to the heights of pleasure. This aria is splendid, with a great soaring theme at its heart. The sensational ending of the opera does what opera can do best - send shivers down your spine. It works.

Cavalleria Rusticana is an almost completely inspired opera - something you can't say about most operas! What a joy!

The plot can be read here.

Reeling with Delight

British composer Andrew Toovey (b.1962) has certainly taken to YouTube, setting up his own channel to offer listeners to opportunity to hear and see many of his scores. Thank you, sir!

As an example of Andrew's work, please try his Lament, Strathspey and Reel for solo violin. As you might expect from the title, there's a strong Scottish folksong influence to this piece. The beautiful Lament takes up most of the piece and is largely quiet, except for occasionally outbursts. It initially floats a modal melody over a near-continuous drone but later the lament begins to rise up the registers of the violin, eventually ending up being played in high harmonics, thus giving the music a strange quality - as if the listener is hearing the music sung by the Aurora Borealis as it passes overhead. The pace then quickens for the Strathspey, a dance in 4/4 time marked by the 'Scotch snap' - an exaggerated rhythm comprising a short note followed by a long one, here buzzing like an angry reincarnation of Bartok's fly. The Reel, a fast dance marked by more even quaver/semiquaver movement and accents on the first and third notes, then strikes up and is gradually whirled to an exciting climax.

If you now fancy hearing another strathspey and reel, then please try the first two movements of Malcolm Arnold's Scottish Dances for orchestra. The first movement is a strathspey, the second a reel,  while the third is a very beautiful Hebridean song and the finale a Highland fling.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Spanish Mozart

They called him 'the Spanish Mozart'. Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826) was a composer-prodigy, writing an octet at the age of 11, having an opera performed at the age of 13 and dying young - very young - at the age of 19. He was maturing quickly before what seems to have been tuberculosis struck him down. Schubert died at 31, Mozart at 35. It's hard not to wonder what even an extra twelve years of life would have meant for the name of Arriaga. 

So what have we got? Alas, little more than the overture from that opera, Los esclavos felices ('The Happy Slaves') survives; however, this overture is one of the works which proves young Arriaga to be at least as precocious as Mendelssohn, Mozart and, maybe, even Korngold. I hope you'll agree that it's a beautifully-proportioned, delightful piece. The style is essentially Classical with an added dash of Rossini (especially in the woodwind writing). The slowish introduction has a bucolic air and a charming tune. The main allegro is full of good things, including memorable themes, an imaginative development section, a rousing Rossinian crescendo leading into the coda and a surprise ending. The scoring throughout is felicitous. 

Now, if you enjoyed that happy creation then you are also bound to like the Symphony in D, completed at the age of 18. It is, however, a piece in a different temper and an even more impressive creation. It starts with a stormy early-Beethoven-like first movement prefaced by a solemn slow introduction, then a beautiful,  pathos-laden Andante followed by a syncopated Minuet with a delectable pastoral trio section and, to end, an agitated Finale that anticipates the coming of Mendelssohn. A noteworthy feature of the symphony is that it is indeed "in D", spending as much of its time in D minor as it does in D major and passing through many a surprising modulation along the way. Many hear a budding Romantic beginning to burst into flower here.

The other main legacy left to us by the young composer are his three string quartets, composed as a group when the composer was 17. In these pieces you also hear Arriaga, like Schubert before him, displaying love and understanding for the quartets of Haydn and Mozart, alighting occasionally on Beethoven but building his own proto-Romantic style. You may also hear little touches of Spanishness from time to time (something absent from the orchestral works). I can bring you only two of them unfortunately. 

The dramatic opening Allegro of the String Quartet No. 1 in D minor has a melancholy air to it and begins with a theme which is quickly developed before yielding to a folk-inspired second subject. Listen out for more of those subtle major/minor shifts in this movement. The tender Adagio unwinds a long cantilena from the first violin, while the Minuet has a trio section that uses pizzicato chords to suggest the accompaniment of a guitar. There's a slow, grave introduction to Mozartian finale, which turns out to be a somewhat brighter movement whose main theme seems to have something of the jota rhythm about it.

The first movement of the String Quartet No. 3 in E flat major shows Arriaga pursuing the Hadyn/Beethoven path of playing with short thematic ideas. It also contains another of the composer's characterful development sections, plus more of his enticing modulations. The delightful second movement takes us into the countryside for a pastorale. As in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, there's a brief storm - evoked using tremolo writing - to disturb the peaceful scene. The cloud-covered C minor Minuet is even closer to the spirit of Beethoven, though its trio section is a far more genial affair. Then comes the closing presto agitato where the Haydnesque impulse to mine themes is further pursued and done so admirably.

You may already know some of these pieces but I suspect you may (like me) be unfamiliar with his vocal music. There's a pleasing if not especially dramatic Stabat Mater for three male voices and orchestra, plus several cantatas. These include the strongly dramatic Agar dans le désert, for soprano, treble and orchestra, which tells the story of Hagar's flight into the desert with her son Ishmael as told in Genesis. The cantata has more than a flavour of tragic opera about it, especially in the striking scene between mother and child and the fierce and fabulous final aria, and is a remarkable piece of writing for a teenager. In a lighter but no less impressive vein, please also try the Dúo from Ma tante Aurore, a lyrical buffo number that lovers of Mozart and Rossini will surely appreciate. 

It's always a bit melancholy, even nearly two hundred years later, to get to know and appreciate someone's work whilst being aware that they had hardly even begun their journey as a composer (and human being) before their death and could have gone on to become one of the greatest names of music, as Arriaga certainly had the makings to be. Still, we have what we have to console us I suppose.

Further listening
Erminiascène lyrique-dramatique
Médée, air
La Hungara, for violin and piano