Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Poulenc: 50 years on

It's fifty years to this very day since one of my favourite composers, Francis Poulenc, died. My love for his music calls for another post, albeit a short one.

The early, frivolous side of Poulenc can be brought to you via a tiny Valse which he wrote in 1919 for the Album des Six. If you now take a listen to Stravinsky's Valse pour les enfants (from three years later), you will (I'm sure) be able to recognise a kindred spirit at work - at least from the opening bars of the Poulenc where the mechanical accompaniment is a striking parallel. Stravinsky had led the way with this sort of thing in his earlier miniatures, but Poulenc was able to draw on the Russian's example and then personalise it. That little Valse of his is much more insouciant and goes on to dance a much warmer tune. It could never be by Stravinsky, only Poulenc. (You can hear the orchestral version here). No great depths are touched and no great depths were meant to be touched in this piece. Such was the intended spirit of Les Six (a very French take on Russia's The Mighty Handful), a group whose stated aim was to get rid of all that heavy, over-serious, German Romantic-influenced music that had come before the First World War and replace it with something light, cheerful, anti-Romantic and French. None of the other five members of the group kept as close to that post-war spirit as Poulenc (however much he did sometimes touch the depths.)

That Poulenc so did can be heard in another of his waltzes, the delightful L'embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos from  much later in his life, 1951. It's music to make you feel good - a lively, happy waltz with good tunes and bright, pianistic colours. It's a piece that is meant to give simple, uncomplicated pleasure to the listener. Of course, connoisseurs (like thee and me) can also savour the naughty 'wrong notes', the surprising harmonic moves and the brilliance of the colours drawn from the two pianos, tokens of the composer's supreme artistry.  Supreme artistry dispatched disarmingly is the quality of Poulenc that most makes me think of him as the 20th Century's truest answer to Mozart. 

After those two tiny (but tasty) morsels from the table of Francis Poulenc (which usually boasted a good bottle of claret too), let's come to something more substantial and a piece that shows the composer touching the depths without wallowing in them - the Violin Sonata of 1942-3, written while France was under occupation and paying honour to the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, killed during the Spanish Civil War. Opening with a fiery theme whose roots in Stravinsky can be discerned by discerning ears but which is inevitably transformed into undiluted Poulenc, the first movement shows the composer being far from frivolous and is a powerful statement from beginning to end, with a particularly gripping central passage. Being Poulenc, however, it also contains a lyrical, melancholy melody of great beauty. The lovely, song-like central movement with its touches of guitar-like writing is the place where the hat is tipped most clearly toward Lorca. The closing movement is a tragic presto, bringing the back the fiery spirit of the first movement but also allowing a happier second subject to blossom. The work ends, however, in a funereal mood and with a final shake of the fist. The bitterness and edge of parts of the Violin Sonata are not quite what fans of this composer expect - and, given, Poulenc's later disdain for the piece, it probably wasn't what the composer expected either. 

No, much more what we all want is the Sextet, which certainly doesn't lack for depth but is essentially witty in character. The opening is Stravinsky-a-la-Poulenc, and the first movement engages in neo-Classical high jinx with themes of pure smiling charm, as well (characteristically) as passages of bitter-sweet lyricism. Poulenc was to given to development, sonata form structure, etc (despite what you may have heard in the Violin Sonata), preferring to juxtapose blocks of music. This first movement's slow middle section is a case in point, appearing, doing its thing then departing (via an imaginatively-scored "transition"). The slow movement itself again brings out composer's ear for beauty and his ability to write with feeling. Though an inattentive ear might take the opening bars as being by Stravinsky, even the most inattentive of listeners will realise within seconds that this is Francis Poulenc - and could be no-one else - particularly when the movement suddenly changes speed and becomes quick, carefree and whistleably tuneful. The finale also switches between moods, high spirits and bitter-sweet lyricism co-existing. The closing pages are particularly gorgeous.  

Poulenc lives!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Must-Read Book

In my Lutosławski centenary post, I teasingly ended like this:
I've left a few of the major Lutosławski score alone here, hoping you will be tempted to explore them all for yourselves. One is a particularly outstanding piece in the composer's later modernist vein. I'll let you find out which one that is!
As many of you have been busy exploring the links, you might just be wondering which piece I had in mind. Well, it's the Livre pour orchestre ('Book for orchestra') of 1968 - a work I absolutely adore and which I believe to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the last century. 

Lasting under twenty minutes, it's a work best appreciated through repeated listening. Re-acquainting myself with it last night, I listened to it some eight times over, getting something new from it each time and loving every second of it.  

Its continuous structure couldn't be easier to understand. It consists of four main movements, which Lutosławski calls 'chapters'. The first three are fairly short, while the fourth 'chapter' is much more extended and functions as a true climax. These are the meat of the score and I'll come to them shortly.

They are linked by three very short 'interludes', which the composer intended as points of relaxation equivalent to the gaps between movements where the audience can stop concentrating, cough, shuffle about in their seats, maybe pass a quiet comment to a neighbour. In these 'interludes', various small groups - in Interlude 1 three clarinets, in Interlude 2 clarinets and harp and in Interlude 3 harp and piano - play 'aleatory' patterns (those highly-controlled elements of uncoordinated performance) that sound like a murmur (or 'wobble'). Only the third interlude leads directly into the 'chapter' that follows. 

The piece's 'Chapter One' opens to a passage where string glissandi are used to create a glorious sweep of melody, initially revolving around the notes of a C minor triad then changing onto the notes a C major triad before branching out. The section sings and dances on, growing wilder, until the brass intervene, provoking a magnificent clatter of percussion. The brass grumble away until another clatter leaves the section to end on a quiet note of sustained mystery. 

The second 'chapter' is a scherzo, full of magical sonorities. This is where the listener's fancy can lead the blogger's art of description astray. I cannot but hear this section as a kind of 'Midsummer Night's Dream' passage - a passage of Britten-crossed-with-Mendelssohn-transformed-into-pure-Lutosławski that brings us the fairies, the rude mechanicals, a spot of Midsummer madness and the ruler of Athens declaiming a speech. I can't get that fancy out of my head now and it helps me enjoy this delightful music even more. I have absolutely no evidence that the composer ever thought of such a connection - or any huge expectation that other listeners will hear it too. What it should suggest to you though, if nothing else, is the music's fantastic, fairy-like character, its variety, its suggestiveness, its wonder. 

The third 'chapter' contains elements from the first two 'chapters'. It's another scherzo, but a far earthier one. (more Beethoven than Mendelssohn). It uses glissandi, also melodically, and is a concentrated, purposeful (and perfect) piece of writing.

The fourth and final 'chapter', which emerges quietly out of the preceding 'interlude', is the key movement of the piece. For me it's a powerful symphonic statement, even if Lutosławski (at this stage in his output) was struggling against traditional symphonic writing; indeed, also for me, it shares a surprising number of features with Sibelius's great Fifth Symphony - the remarkable transitions between slow and fast music, the 'hammer blows' punctuating by loud silences, the mystery and grandeur - and has something of the same emotional effect (on me). Again perhaps unhelpfully for you (though hopefully not), I have a 'fancy' about it. The movement suggests to my imagination a warm human sensibility walking beneath Northern stars, standing amazed at the sweeping mysterious majesty of the Northern Lights as they cross the skies before him, suddenly feeling anxious, panicking, then - as dawn comes and the birds begin to sing and soar (those duetting flutes) - being overcome by feelings of peace and harmony. That's my fancy, but it's a fancy that suggests the symphonic power and the drama and beauty of this culminating movement. The string writing in the early stages is typical of Lutosławski (and became ever more typical in his later works). Even if it takes a non-melodic form, it still sings and is utterly beautiful. Listen out for (and you won't miss it) the thrilling passage where a sequence of eight densely-packed chords are punched out by the brass, getting ever nearer in time between each punch. It's an astonishing effect of closing-in. 

Lutosławski's Livre pour orchestre may not be a best-seller but it's a true classic. Hope you enjoy reading it!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Ella Milch-Sheriff's Songs of Love

Further to my earlier post on Israeli classical music, Looking beyond Dana International..., where we met such eloquent composers as Paul Ben-Haim, Betty Olivero and Noam Sheriff, the richness of the classical music tradition in Israel calls for a few follow-up posts, beginning today with a post about Ella Milch-Sheriff

Ella, born in Haifa in 1954 and married to Noam Sheriff, writes accessible modern music, some way removed from the international avant-garde. Her music is rich and direct in its appeal. I hope you will take to her music as enthusiastically as I have.

As a starting point, please try her Piano Concerto of 2008. It's in the traditional three movements and is, just as traditionally, a virtuoso showpiece. Fans of Samuel Barber's music will, perhaps, recognise a kindred spirit. The first movement, Play, Memory, is full of happy and vivacious writing but also has lyrical moments  - as if the playful scenes are being recalled fondly through older, reflective eyes. I detect hints of Prokofiev and Ravel. The second movement, In Memoriam, is as poignant as the sadder pages of Elgar and Mahler and speaks through their kind of expressive, late-Romantic string writing and its piano equivalent. It was apparently written as a prayer for her mother and is both beautiful and touching. The third movement E-motion is more in keeping with the lively, rhythmic manner of the first movement but at it nears its close a surge of lyrical expressiveness re-enters the concerto and sweeps it to an emotional climax before its dogged closing bars. This piece would be a sure-fire hit if performed during a BBC Prom concert. 

Ella Milch-Sheriff is best known, I believe, for her vocal music. She has written pop music and art music. Something of that pop strain can be heard, along with Israeli folk music, in her "musical fantasy based on 'The Song of Solomon'", Dark Am I - her appealing cycle for voices and ensemble paying loving tribute to the universal idea of 'love' (and dedicated to her own true love, her husband Noam). Written for a specific soprano, Keren Hadar, who seems to have something of the charismatic presence of Berio's muse Cathy Berberian, the extracts from the work I've heard strike me as having much in common with Berio's popular Folk Songs - just sample the infectious Dark Am I or the truly ravishing Mio Diletto (you really must try this one!) and compare them with the Berio songs. (Further extracts here, here and here). This would go down a storm at a late-night BBC Prom concert. 

The harrowing wartime experiences of her father, Dr. Baruch Milch, form the basis of her 2003 cantata Can Heaven be Void? for mezzo-soprano, narrator and orchestra. The libretto draws from her father memoirs (not published until after his death in 1989), interspersing them with poems by Paul Celan. There is something of Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw about this deeply moving piece, including the mingling of song and speech. (If you're an English-speaker it is a must to watch this performance whilst reading the English translation of the libretto.). It is a work that speaks simply and truthfully and should be heard far and wide. 

The vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv, as well as a variety of other moods, including less happy ones, come to our ears musically in Ella's Night's End Anthem (see also Pts. 2 & 3) for two sopranos, children's choir and orchestra. The captivating colours of the composer's orchestration (including lots of percussion), the catchiness of the rhythms and the beautiful vocal writing all make Night's End Anthem a treat for the listener. Ella Milch-Sheriff sure knows how to communicate. Audiences the world over (well, except in certain countries!) would absolutely love this piece - if they got to hear it. 

There's so much Israeli classical music that seems to by-pass us in the United Kingdom. We need to hear much more of it.

Gideon Klein

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I want to mark it by posting a memorial to one of the composers killed in the Nazi concentration camps, the Czech-Jewish composer, Gideon Klein (1919-1945).

Many of you will know what went on at the Terezín concentration camp - a brutal work camp exclusively for Jews which the Nazis tried to hoax the world into believing was a humane and happy place. Culture certainly did go on at Terezín, but so did around 33,000 deaths from overwork, disease and so on. Some 88,000 people were later deported to extermination camps. Gideon Klein was forced to go there in 1941 and then deported to Auschwitz in late 1944, dying (in unclear circumstances) during the attempt by the Nazis to wipe out all the remaining prisoners at the Fürstengrube camp in early 1945. He was aged 25. The Orel Foundation provides a biography of Klein, showing his determination to keep culture and hope alive at Terezín during his three years there. 

Like the wonderful Pavel Haas, subject of another post of mine, Klein's music is far from being merely of historical importance. 

Two weeks before his deportation to Auschwitz, the young man finished his splendid String Trio, whose short, purposeful opening Allegro positively abounds in fresh ideas - one strongly folk-flavoured, another reflecting the composer's roots in his Moravian compatriot Janáček. The central Lento is a theme and variations on a sad Moravian folksong, where the depth of feeling is clear to hear. Klein is had a keen interest in modernist music (as we shall hear), with Berg as a particular influence. Hints of Berg (the earlyish Berg of the String Quartet Op.3) are heard in this Lento - though not too strongly. With the finale we enter another folk-dance-inspired movement, albeit one crafted with touches of counterpoint and with a harmonic and colouristic range which admirers of the music of Shostakovich will, perhaps, find familiar. 

The Bergian element is stronger in another piece composed at Terezín - the virtuoso Piano Sonata of 1943 (Klein was a pianist himself). Again it's earlyish Berg - his Piano Sonata, Op.1 - which mainly springs to (my) mind, though the opening of the central Adagio perhaps suggests an echo of the late Berg of the Violin Concerto. We are in the world of rich, almost Scriabinesque extended tonality shading towards atonality (but not getting there). The exciting third movement has some decidedly Scriabin-like flourishes. It's a full-on piece, flooding the piano with colour most beautifully. As you may have noticed, I'm a great admirer of both Berg and Scriabin so this is right up my street!

The soundworld of Berg's String Quartet, Op.3 is certainly present in Gideon Klein's expressive (and somewhat expressionistic) String Quartet No.2 of 1939-1941 (mvts. 2 and 3). You will find it a tougher listen than the two later works, but far from an unrewarding one. Its structure is quite unusual one with a lighter, shorter central fast movement framed by two more substantial, slower movements. The opening movement is dramatic in character, at times rather like an operatic scena complete with recitative-like passage. The central scherzo is a sort of danse macabre with a striking main theme, flourishes from the ghostly violinist, lots of pizzicato and and a folk-like secondary theme. The closing Andante cantabile is deeply lyrical and full of yearning, melancholy harmonies. If you enjoyed that then I'm sure you'll also appreciate the unfinished Duo for Violin and Cello (1941). 

His Op.1 from 1940 was a set of songs. The high-lying vocal writing will be recognisable to anyone who knows their Schoenberg and Webern, with the lyrical qualities of Berg again to the fore (including in the piano writing). This really does sound like Second Viennese School-style music. The first song, The Fountain, sets the 17th Century composer Johann Klaj. The second one, In the Midst of Life, sets Hölderlin). The third, Darkness Descending, sets Goethe. All three are lovely. That this high-lying vocal writing seems to have been about to become a feature of his individual style is suggested by the delightful (tonal) arrangement he made of a Lullaby by (I think) the Ukranian rabbi Sholom Charitonov. 

The delightful Divertimento for Eight Wind Instruments of 1940 shows him experimenting with Neo-Classicism (listen out for the fugue in the opening March), with added touches of Janáček (especially in the Adagio) and further symptoms of Schoenbergian influence.

If all of this is making Gideon Klein sound like a composer writing music derived from the composers who most influenced him (i.e. 'derivative'), well, firstly, that's not a problem if the composer can (as Klein does) write convincingly in those veins and, secondly, that's simply the inevitable consequence of the fact that Klein was a young man  and a young composer when he wrote all of these pieces. He was around the age of 20, for example, when he wrote his Second String Quartet. So what an achievement that piece is! It was only his Op.2. In comparison, Beethoven's Op.18 quartets (often betraying the influence of Haydn and Mozart) were only begun when he was 28 - and he had decades more to write greater, wholly individual pieces. Nearly all young composers show their influences in their youthful works - especially if, like Klein, they are largely self-taught - as they make their way towards a long maturity where their own individual voice is full achieved. It's just the way things are. What's remarkable about Gideon Klein is how mature his pieces sound at such a young age. He was, of course,  denied the opportunity Beethoven had to become an original. Like millions of others. Hence Holocaust Memorial Day. 

I'll end with a particularly beautiful piece that combines the two main strains in the composer's art. The First Sin, for tenor and male voice choir, comes from 1942 and shows the composer digging into his Czech roots, as he was to do again in his String Trio. Janáček is a presence. The manner, however, also shows touches of Schoenbergian influence. (If you know Schoenberg's choruses you will appreciate the truth of this more than if you don't!). If he had continued fusing Janáček with Schoenberg/Berg what beautiful and original works could have flowed. 

Britten Appears - and inspires

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Britain's most bankable composer (as the receipts show), Benjamin Britten. British critics have long agonised over our country's seeming inability to sell our own composers abroad. Ben is the exception. He sells. As I'm slightly ambivalent about Britten's music myself, I hope this year will also sell him to me.

As a first step in celebrating the Britten centenary (which BBC Radio 3 is already fully in the swing of), I want to talk about a piece of his that I'm already sold on - the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op.27

Written in the early 1940s, it seems to me to be one of Ben's most beautiful and enduring works. He was taken with the idea of hymning the patron saint of music given that he himself was born on her saints day. Setting W.H. Auden and written for unaccompanied chorus, its opening bars initiate us into the delights of its main theme. This dancing tune, introduced by women's voices over a sequential skeleton of itself (built on interlocking falling fourths) sung by the men, acts as a refrain ("Blessed Cecilia/Appear in visions to all musicians/Appear and inspire"), sung in unison at the close of the piece's first section (based on the same tune), being re-harmonised at the end of the second section, being developed in the third, then closing the piece gently. It's a magical idea and its nature gives rise to many enchantments of harmony. The second section sounds for all the world like a (very fast) children's round and is a breath of dancing joy until the breaking-in of Blakean experience at its close. The third section is the most complex part of the score, contrapuntal and dominated by a descending, trudging ostinato. Despair, however, is banished as the opening mood, reintroduced ravishingly by a solo soprano, carries us towards the luminous closing pages. 

Is it the Englishman in me that responds so strongly to this piece? Is this one of those pieces the rest of the world take to too, or not?

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Aram of Arabia

I promised in an earlier post concerning Aram Khachaturian's absorbing Second Symphony to blog something about the same composer's Third Symphony, which I described as an "unmissably awful...jaw-dropping monstrosity". I'll keep my word. Please take a listen to it. It won't disappoint you. 

It's not long (lasting under 25 minutes), but the Third Symphony's lack of length is more than made up for by the scale of its orchestra. (It requires the entire population of all fifteen nations of the former Soviet Union just to play the brass parts!) The sheer noise the thing makes also belies its size. (The Martians wrote a letter to the U.N. complaining about noise levels after enduring several performances of it!). The orchestral fanfares (massed brass and drums) are truly stentorian, banal yet overpowering - like a royal wedding pageant as organised by someone with absolutely no sense of decorum, proportion or sense. Then imagine Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ as played by a demented 1940s movie organist and you might get some impression (even before you hear it) of the work's astonishing organ part. 

After this monstrous regiment of fanfares and the mad organist, the symphony winds down and the big tune appears - an Armenian-style tune, given a lush Hollywood-style treatment. This section really does sound like something out of an epic film score - something Ben Hur-ish or Lawrence of Arabia-ish. (The sensible listener in me notes that the repeating pairs of notes in this theme are in some way connected to the stentorian fanfares. Not that this really matters.) The pace picks up and the dramatic climax of the film section is reached. The symphony then winds down again and the fanfare figure is quietly remembered, very simply. Woodwind arabesques appear and the music potters around a bit longer, repeating that simple fanfare figure and the arabesques. Suddenly a sandstorm blows in and the music comes back to live, building itself up (with a simple rhythm and a squally figure) to a rowdy, hectoring climax on the fanfare figure which just gets even more rowdy and hectoring on each repetition. 

The mad organist re-enters the organ loft and the symphony swirls up again, ever crazier, towards the return of the fanfares at their most bombastic, as at the beginning. The insane organist and those monstrous regiments of brass bludgeon their way on, knocking any semblance of subtlety out of the way, preparing us for the most delightful thing of all - the return of the romantic big tune as a high-kicking, colourfully-dressed Cossack. It's like the can-can with armoured tanks. The tune does get a rather more romantic reprise afterwards, but the film symphony is reaching its heroic climax - obviously a battle - and victory for the Motherland is gloried in with yet more scorchingly over-written climatic passages before the symphony galumphs to its full-throttle ending. 

Stupefying, stupid, stupendous stuff! I love it!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Lutosławski: Many Happy Returns (for the listener)!

If any birthday needs celebrating (other than my own) it's that of the great Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. He was born exactly one hundred years ago today. Happy birthday, Witold!

Lutosławski, who died in 1994 (aged 81), was one of Poland's leading post-war composers, well-known and widely-regarded around the world. Like so many composers of his generation, a degree of posthumous neglect has set in. Thankfully he has always had dogged champions and hopefully more will rally to his cause this year. I'm doing my bit here, and Tom Service has being doing his bit over at the Guardian

I must confess to having paralleled the posthumous trajectory of Lutosławski's music in having been a voracious devourer of his music in my younger years and then, having got to know most of his major works, moving on to other composers and new discoveries. I've not listened to Lutosławski in recent years. Until now. Revisiting some of my old favourites has been a journey of rediscovery - and a fillip. 

Wikipedia provides a chronological list of Lutosławski's works. Here's a chronological list of works that are available to listen to on YouTube:

Of the early works, the Piano Sonata shows a confident young composer, albeit one without a voice of his own. The piece's clear influences are Ravel and Debussy. This seems fitting as Lutosławski is, I would say,  a composer very much in the mould of Ravel, despite the vast differences in their mature styles. The short Lacrimosa is surprisingly close to the soundworld of Szymanowski's late choral music. The Paganini Variations (yes, on that theme!) are the best-known of the very early works. At heart they are a translation into two piano form (with added harmonic spice) of the set of variations on the theme which Paganini himself composed (his Caprice No.24). As the early works proceed you also see an interest in Polish folk music. This began before the war and continued under the communist regime imposed after the war. In pieces like the Little Suite you can hear how accomplished and pleasing Lutosławski can be in this vein. 

For all the fine qualities of the Symphony No. 1 (a piece in the traditional four movements, with touches of Stravinsky throughout, an elegiac Bartókian slow movement and a goblin-like scherzo), the culminating masterpiece of this somewhat Bartók-like period is unquestionably the glorious Concerto for Orchestra. There are three movements. The Intrada begins as an exhilarating series of symphonic metamorphoses on a Polish folk melody intensified over a constantly pulsing pedal note. This leads to a pastoral section which also introduces new material that will be worked on late in the concerto. Dramatic rhythmic music alternates with singing music, leading to a thrilling climatic passage before the pastoral mood returns. The delightful second movement Capriccio notturno e Arioso begins as a piece of what Bartók would have called 'night music' - a whispering scherzo (shades of Mendelssohn!) - before the brass-rich Arioso (acting as a trio) brings contrasting music of heroic and passionate character. The bulk of the Concerto for Orchestra lies with its finale - a Passacaglia followed by a Toccata e Corale. During the Passacaglia the theme passes through all manner of orchestral colours (as befits a concerto for orchestra), rising from murky beginnings to a strenuous climax. The vigorous  and increasingly heady Toccata is interwoven with a Corale introduced by a choir of woodwinds and graced by an accompanying melody introduced by a solo flute. You will doubtless recognise the return of the theme from the Intrada. Superb, isn't it?

With the cultural thaw in Poland during the second half of the 1950s, the country witnessed the birth of a home-grown avant-garde and Lutosławski was one of its leading figures. This Polish modernist movement quickly became known and influential well beyond the borders of Poland. As the 1960s dawned the composer of the tonal Concerto for Orchestra had become a very different-sounding composer, writing works like Jeux Vénitiens ('Venetian Games'). Here you find the composer employing his own version of twelve-tone serialism. You will also find him using his famous Cage-inspired technique of "controlled aleatoricism". Eh?

Tom Service described this scary-sounding idea rather brilliantly as: 
"a magnificently obfuscatory term for something incredibly simple: basically, giving orchestral players material to play without precise rhythmic co-ordination, so you can create textures in which you know what pitches you're going to hear, but not exactly in what combination or at what speed. It's an easy way of conjuring a controlled chaos and a complex but relatively static texture."
Aleatory passages crops up in work after work from the period leading up to Venetian Games onwards, even in many of his final works - though the composer did rein it in as time went on. The effects achieved are not displeasing nor uninteresting. A fine composer is not handing over his composition to improvising performers. He's just giving them a little bit of freedom to play around with the rhythm of short passages, thus introducing a small measure of unpredictability into parts of his music. Sometimes, it has to be said, these passages do sound less interesting that the fully-composed material that surrounds them.

The works that lead up to Venetian Games, where the composer was first attempting serial composition, contain a number of fine works. One of my favourites, the at-times-beautiful, at-times-magical Five Songs to Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna’s poems of 1957, is currently unavailable on YouTube. Funeral Music, however, written over four years to mark the anniversary of the death of Bartók and close in spirit to the Hungarian giant's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, is available and shows Lutosławski essaying  serialism, albeit in a much more traditional light than Venetian Games. It is a transitional work but  it's wholly consistent within itself and a powerfully expressive piece of music.  

The zenith of controlled aleatoricism was reached in the String Quartet of 1964, if only because the aleatory passages (which he began calling 'mobiles') last longer than in any other piece. This is also the work where Lutosławski tried out a new structural form that he was to make his own - a two movement structure with a short, hesitant introductory movement as then a long, weightier second movement. As in Venetian Games, you also find the composer using signals - often a loud thwack of some kind! - to move between the various episodes within a movement (which became something of a Lutosławski fingerprint). 

Gramophone  magazine's long-time modern music specialist Prof. Arnold Whittall once wrote that these radical pieces of Lutosławski have worn least well. To someone who has heard them (and too much else) before maybe, but if you are new to this kind of music (as I was all those years ago) it won't feel old hat to you. 'The shock of the new' will probably still be there for you, along with its potential for exhilaration. That said, I think Prof. Whittall has a point. I am, returning to these pieces, less taken with them than I was first time round. (Older? More conservative tastes?)

Perhaps the work that sums up this period is the Symphony No. 2. A game of two halves, as football commentators like to say, it embodies the new structure mentioned above. There's a first movement called 'Hésitant' and a second movement called 'Direct'. The colourful 'Hésitant' presents a series of seven 'episodes' for various combinations of instruments, separating them with a (much varied) 'refrain' for winds.  Pierre Boulez conducted this symphony, and Lutosławski comes as close as he ever did to Boulez in this movement. 'Direct' is, well, much more directed (as it were), with seething swarms of sound (not dissimilar in many ways to those swarming around works of the time by Penderecki, Ligeti or Xenakis) scouring our ears for a quarter of an hour.  It's not a piece particularly close to my heart.

Now let's return to those that are. If you are someone who wants a strong melodic component in a work, these radical works of the 1960s aren't the place to look. Right at the heart of the decade, however, stands Paroles tissées - a piece Peter Pears (Britten's life partner) brought to a worldwide audience. The tenor part is fully composed and the aleatory parts are there as aids to poetry. It's in pieces like this that you hear the composer's links to Ravel most clearly. Try the delicate impressionism of the second song ('Quand le jour a rouvert les branches du jardin') for evidence of that.  From Ravel it's not too much of a leap to recall the exotic (middle period) Szymanowski again in the final song ('Dormez cett pâleur nous est venue de loin') - a very beautiful number.

The Cello Concerto (from the close of the decade) is another very direct piece, albeit dramatic rather than lyrical and poetic (not that it entirely lacks those qualities - as we shall see. Everyone who hears the concerto can hardly fail to perceive it as a drama starring the cello as The Individual who comes into conflict (Peter Grimes-like) with the orchestra. Sometimes engaging with them in 'dialogue', even attaining harmony with them at one point, the cellist is a figure fighting a tough battle to be heard and understood. The brass act play an aggressively disruptive role and are clearly the villains of the piece. The man who brought this piece to the world's attention, Mstislav Rostropovich, read this drama in political terms (apt for a man in conflict with the Soviet authorities) and projected the piece forcefully. Tom Service's article airs the issue well. As for melody, well just listen to the concerto's third movement, headed 'Cantilena' - a word that (alongside 'cantando') was to become quite common in Lutosławski's later works. Some of the melodic turns of this movement seem (to my ears) to be echoed (deliberately?) in the Fourth Symphony two decades later.

I now come to two Lutosławski scores that are particularly dear to me - a pair of absolute masterpieces composed at around the same time as other other (the mid 1970s), namely the very beautiful single-movement song-cycle Les espaces du sommeil ('Spaces of Sleep') and the equally beautiful single-movement orchestral piece Mi-Parti. I'm not sure quite how but until this week I'd never come across Mi-Parti before. It had somehow slipped my net on my early trawl through the composer's output. I am so glad to have discovered it. Having always loved Les espaces du sommeil to find an orchestral work that complements it so well has been a joy. The song-cycle, setting the surrealist poems of Desnos, again reflect a Ravelian sensibility at times, having a highly refined use of orchestral colour. The vocal line is no less full of character. The central section, an Adagio, is most magical - a deeply poetic passage of calm mystery. Slowly shifting string chords punctuated by gentle glissandi create the calm mood and the magic is added to by the birdsong-like decorations provided by the woodwind, percussion and brass. The outer sections are more dramatic and the ending is a delightful surprise. Mi-Parti strikes me as being as dream-like as the central passage of Les espaces du sommeil - a beautiful orchestral nocturne. There is a violent eruption but the work comes through it and a classic Lutosławski string cantilena emerges, moving towards the highest registers, as the work enters its captivating and poetic final phase.  

And after Mi-Parti Lutosławski's music changes again and enters its final phase - a period book-ended (roughly-speaking) by the composer's two final symphonies. The Symphony No.3 begins with music that still strongly reflects the modernist strains of his art - episodic structure, aleatory passages, 'signals' and 'refrains', and the downplaying of melody - but this introductory fantasy of fragments eventually proceeds into the work's main section where toccata-like themes begin to drive the music on and it's not long before we get our first 'cantando' theme, rich and melodic. The music surges on and the symphony's central passage concentrates on polyphony, reaching many a rousing climax. So far the composer has still been pursuing his own, contrarian approach to traditional symphonic writing (i.e. avoiding it), however, anticipating the melodic wonders of the Fourth Symphony, the Epilogue of Lutosławski's Third allows the full and extended blossoming of another 'cantando' theme in a way that feels 'properly' symphonic. Its first appearance is mysterious and subdued but its soon bursts into full flower magnificently, then withdraws again into 'night music', winds itself up once more excitingly, disappears briefly and then returns magically on solo horn - music that positively shines like the surface of the Vistula at sunrise -, climaxes in a somewhat Bartók-like fashion then finally gives way to a colourful dash to the end - truly magnificent music, that transfigure all that has gone before it in the symphony.

At the other end of this late period comes the Symphony No. 4 - a particularly gorgeous work, where Lutosławski's early devotion to Debussy and (especially) Ravel can be heard yet again and where the composer's long reluctance to connect himself wholeheartedly to the great symphonic tradition abates considerably. A one-movement work in his trademark two-section form, the lovely 'introductory' section introduce's the work's themes and builds suspense. The aleatory passages fully merit their place and even the brass interruptions cannot stop the flow of unquenchable beauty here - especially the great outpouring of lyrical string melody with which this section ends. The second ('main') section opens delightfully with new material we will keep meeting in new clothes as it proceeds. After a short aleatory passage, a richly-scored string 'cantando' begins, reintroducing a lyrical note (soon to be taken up by solo winds), set alongside dramatic gestures. A sort of magical 'night music' interlude follows, itself followed by a radiant dawn of sun-bright melody - another string 'cantilena', colourfully counterpointed by the rest of the orchestra. After a dense build-up the symphony climaxes on a fierce chord. The aftershock of this ('scared' string solos, a fearful hush) is followed by a brief, loud and exciting closing passage. This is the sort of piece that those who savoured the Concerto for Orchestra should also enjoy (despite its more modernist aspects). Like the Concerto for Orchestra, it's another of my own favourites.

The Fourth Symphony was to be Lutosławski's final large-scale masterpiece, but there are others from the years between these two late symphonies. There's another enchanting orchestral song-cycle for starters, and one (as who might have guessed) where the Ravelian side of  Lutosławski comes out unashamedly - Chantefleurs et Chantefables ('Songflowers and Songfables'). The Frenchman's L'Enfant et les sortilèges seems particularly close here. There are nine songs: 1.La belle-de-nuit ('The Marvel of Peru'), 2.La sauterelle ('The Grasshopper'), 3.La véronique ('The Speedwell'), 4.L'églantine, l'aubépine et la glycine ('The Wild Rose, the Hawthorn and the Wisteria'),  5.La tortue ('The Tortoise'), 6.La rose ('The Rose'), 7.L'alligator ('The Alligator'), 8.L'angélique ('The Angelica') and 9.Le papillon ('The Butterfly'). There's plenty of humour as well as poetry in the cycle, and magic is found in song after song. I cannot recommend this piece enough. As you can tell, it's another of my favourites; indeed, I think it's my favourite Lutosławski piece of all.

If you think late Lutosławski is beginning to sound as if it's music that could speak to those less sympathetic to modernism, well it is! The Piano Concerto understandably went down a storm with audiences when it first appeared. This is probably a very flippant thing to write but imagine if Bartók and Ravel had been asked to collaborate and write the Warsaw Concerto instead of Richard Addinsell and you might get some idea in advance of what this concerto sounds like! Well, perhaps that's taking it too far, but the concerto's occasional (and widely noticed) skirting of the spirit of Chopin shows that this isn't a piece in the same spirit as Venetian Games, or for that matter the Third Symphony. Lutosławski was undoubtedly reintegrating his first loves into his later works, and doing so with a degree of Romanticism not heard in his music since its earliest days. Of course, there are modernistic touches throughout the piece but they won't scare too many anti-modernist horses who happen to be listening.

This late period was notable for one new technical process - the 'chain' process, which you may have noticed in the list at the top of the post prompted three pieces entitled 'Chain'. This is as simple to explain as 'controlled aleatoricism'. It just means that the piece is build from a string of episodes (he calls them 'sentences') which overlap each other at their respective ends. It's as simple as that. Or to put it another way:
This late period was notable for one new technical process - the 'chain' process, which you may have noticed in the list at the top of the post prompted three pieces enttihtleid 'Cshaiins as simple to explain as 'controlled aleaItorticijsmust means that the piece is build from a string of episodes (he calls them 'sentences') which overlap each other at their respectivIe et'ndss as simple as that.
Hope that clarified things! If it doesn't Chain 1 and Chain 3 hopefully will.

Chain II took its place in a glorious late Triptych comprising PartitaInterlude and Chain 2. This has become a large-scale violin concerto, with the Interlude providing a purely orchestral resting place for the soloist at the heart of the composite piece. The masterly Partita again allows Lutosławski's roots in Bartók to show through, offering us music of considerable intellectual and emotional clout. At times motoric, at times meditative, the work is essentially melody-driven (a tough, chromatic strain of melody). The Interlude, in  contrast, is primarily harmony-driven and is another of those quiet, slow movements, a sort of Ivesian nocturne, full of poetry and mystery. Chain II merits being linked up to the Partita, having some of the same characteristics. It is rather more scherzo-like, however - though it's a darkish scherzo (as so many scherzos have been throughout history). Again, it's music of great substance. The Triptych provides us with a final masterpiece to end this post.

I've left a few of the major Lutosławski score alone here, hoping you will be tempted to explore them all for yourselves. One is a particularly outstanding piece in the composer's later modernist vein. I'll let you find out which one that is!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The other Rusalka

My post last year on the music of Alexander Dargomyzhsky - the 200th anniversary of whose birth falls this year - found him to be an interesting rather than an inspiring composer. Now, however, I've come across a 1971 film of his other great opera Rusalka and I've enjoyed watching it. The piece is one that gets occasional mentions outside Russia (and the Ukraine) for being "the other Rusalka" (i.e. not the popular opera by Dvorak). It also gets occasional mentions in articles and books about music acknowledging its steps towards the "melodic recitative" Dargomyzhsky made famous in The Stone Guest and which had such an influence on Russian composers to come. Mentions, however, are all his Rusalka gets. We never get to hear the piece here in the United Kingdom. 

Rusalka, based (like The Stone Guest) on Pushkin, follows in the paths of Glinka by displaying strong elements of Italian opera (Bellini, Donizetti & Co., arias, duets, terzettos and cavatinas) alongside Russian-sounding, folk-like elements. The style is predominantly a lyrical one, such as would be found in the still-to-be-written operas of Smetana. 

The story tells of how a Prince courts a miller's daughter called Natalia (in disguise of course). The Prince, however, then goes on to marry a wealthy foreign lady instead. Natalia, having fallen pregnant, despairs and throws herself into the river. Time passes. The Prince is unhappy in his marriage to the Princess and lurks by the river pining for Natalia. She, in the meantime, has become the queens of the rusalkas (water nymphs) and, though still in love with the Prince, plots revenge and gets their young daughter to draw him into the waters. Her father, incidentally, has gone mad. The Princess tries to save the Prince but he hears Natalia's voice and follows her into the waters.

The passage with the daughter is an unusual one in that the girl playing the role has to speak rather than sing over the orchestra. The orchestra's importance is growing towards its key role in The Stone Guest

Please take a listen and see what you make of it. Just don't expect to hear the Song to the Moon

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Peruvian Rhapsody

Though some might find them a bit sketchy, I'm rather proud of my posts on Latin American classical music.  They may be a bit impressionistic but they've opened up whole new vistas for me (and hopefully for you), exposing classical traditions of considerable richness that the rest of the world seems oblivious to - to its great loss. I'm saving two of the most widely-explored musical traditions (those of Argentina and Brazil) for a later date, but I'm now about to indulge myself and explore the classical music of Peru.

The one 'fact' I used to know about Peru is that it's classical tradition was so bad that it didn't even have a symphony orchestra. God knows where I got that from as Wikipedia informs me that the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru was formed in 1938. It attracted major composers (from Copland to Stravinsky), major conductors (Sargent to Kleiber) and major soloists (Menuhin to Arrau). There's also, Google suggests, a Lima Symphony Orchestra and a Lima Philharmonic Orchestra - and more besides. How wrong can you be? (Answer: Very). 

Peruvian composers? Well, given the influx of Spaniards following the conquest by Pizarro & Co., a good deal of Spanish-style early music can be expected. There seems to have been something of a time-lag, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the kind of music being written in Peru and that written in Europe. Mid-Baroque composers like (the Spanish-born) Juan de Araujo (1646-1712) sound more like late-Renaissance composers, whether in popular or in liturgical pieces - see Hola, hala, que vienen gitanas and Los Coflades de la estleya for examples of the former and the Venetian-style Dixit Dominus a 3 coros and Magnficat a 11 for examples of the latter, both of the final pair alternating polyphony and plainchant. Though historically significant, this fact of that time-lag doesn't detract from the splendour of de Araujo's music, which is widely considered to be the crowning glory of early Latin American music.

His almost exact contemporary Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco (1644-1728) is another fine figure in early music. The nobility of his setting of the Lamentations and the Monteverdian grandeur of his Magnificat a 15 testifies to the majesty of early Baroque church music in Latin America. More popular pieces - those Christmas carols called villancicos, for example - abound in the composer's art e.g. Cuando el bien que adoro. Torrejón also stands as a crucial figure historically by introducing opera to the Americas. His La Púrpura de la Rosa is, however, an opera with bags of distinctive Latin American colour - in rhythm and scoring -, thus bringing qualities that many have continued to associate with the region's music to an essentially Baroque world of sound.

Roque Ceruti (c.1685-1760) moves us into a later phase of Baroque music. A contemporary (an ocean apart) of Bach and Handel, his Beatus Vir a 4 and Dixit Dominus a 4 are a fascinating mix of (late) mid-Baroque elements and (early) late-Baroque ones while his Missa de Lima is pure (early) late-Baroque, with shades of Vivaldi. Those shades come into the open in such delightful villancicos as Hoy la tierra produce una rosa. For lovers of the European Baroque, this music will prove fascinating. It should prove an agreeable listen for most music lovers. If you can resist such a piece as Al Campo sale María, then you are adamantine in character.

The main figure of 19th Century music is José Bernardo Alcedo (1788-1878). He wrote the national anthem of Peru in 1821, Somos libres, seámoslo siempre. This (coming at it from a classical music buff's perspective) has a distinctly post-French-revolutionary feel to it, owing a lot in its structure, melody and harmony to La Marseillaise. I think I can see where Alcedo from coming from there! "Vive la Pérou!!" Moving forward half a century, a setting for chorus and orchestra of the Miserere from 1872 has plenty of early Verdi - or, at the very least, early-Romantic Italian opera (or even Rossini) - about it. Just listen to the soprano aria and the soprano/tenor duet, for example. There also also more familiar European choral/orchestral strains of writing (as found in the choral works of composers from Mozart to Berlioz). The piece rather took me by surprise. I have a feeling you'll like it too. (I'm not sure what piece I'm listening to here - which shares many a trait with the Miserere - but I like that too).

Moving into the last century, we come to the fascinating figure of Daniel Alomía Robles (1871-1942), composer and explorer of indigenous music. Just as composers in the rest of Latin America were beginning  at the end of the 1920s to make orchestral music based on indigenous folk music so, it seems, was Robles. From the date of the performance in the U.S. of his Hymn to the Sun (1930), said to be based on old Inca melodies, he seems to be quite a pioneer in this regard. I think I knew the main tune already. I'm sure I last heard it in Durham City centre last year, being performed on panpipes and electronic organ by chaps in ponchos and bowler hats. That Robles was a pioneer is confirmed by the date of his most famous melody, El cóndor pasa ('The condor passes'), based on a folk song and written for a zarzuela in 1913. (I know for a fact that I heard that last year in Durham City Centre - and in other city centres over the years! - where it sounded more like this.) It became world-famous thanks to Simon and Garfunkel in 1970. ("I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail," Paul sings. Same here.) It is a beautiful melody. It sounds to me like a cousin of the tune of the Hymn to the Sun. (Are the two related?) You might also like to try Amanecer andino ('Andean Sunrise'). 

Ernesto López Mindreau (1892-1972) studied with a number of the virtuoso pianist-composers - Rachmaninov, Stojowski and Xavier Scharwenka - and a measure of the highly Romantic soundworld of the latter pair can be heard in his Prélude (dans le style ancien). Marinera y Tondero (two type of dance, if you were wondering) seems to be the composer's most popular piece. In its piano version it shows the composer combining his virtuoso style with nationalist melodies and rhythms. In its orchestral version it proves a colourful dance miniature. Its popularity is easy to understand. It would make a charming encore at a concert.

Peru's main Romantic lieder composer appears to have been Alfonso de Silva (1902-1937). His songs (generous selections of which you can hear here and here) and his piano miniatures (a selection of which can be heard here) manifest a considerable talent, especially for lyrical expression. They really are very attractive. There are also orchestral works by de Silva, alas none of which I've been able to hear. Alfonso lived a bohemian life by all accounts, hence his short-life span it seems. Inca melodies weren't his kind of thing.

Moving on (and reflecting a strong European influence just as much as de Silva), a particularly attractive example of post-Ravel/post-Debussy-style piano writing is found in the Suite Hospital of 1928 by Robert Carpio (1900-1986), with harmonies to match, as well as in the lovely, atmospheric La procesión. Something of that harmonic influence even adds scent to his pretty Aire de vals of 1938 (yes, a waltz!) for violin and piano. An orchestration of an early work of his - namely his Nocturno of 1921 - shows a more Romantic side but hints at what is to come. 

And talking of impressionism...we now come to Theodoro Valcárcel (1902-1942), who lived only a little longer than Alfonso de Silva. He appears (from my researches) to be held in high regard by Peruvian classical music fans. Listening to his music has proved why. If you know Carlos Chávez's fiercely beautiful Sinfonia India you might be expecting a piece called Concierto Indio - a work from 1940 - to sound as 'primitive' and 'exotic' as that great Mexican masterpiece. Valcárcel's concerto, however, is a much more Romantic affair - a lyrical violin concerto that might have met with Max Bruch's approval. It uses indigenous melodies, but sweetly rather than savagely. It is a lovely, highly accomplished piece that could be a worldwide hit if taken up by a star violinist. A song in much the same vein (aaah, lovely!) is Suray Surita (one of the composers Four Inca Songs). You can also hear a beautiful, impressionist-tinged piano version of Suray Surita at the start of a selection of piano miniatures by the composer here. All the piano pieces in that selection combine 'Indian' melodies with impressionist piano writing - a winning combination if ever there was one! (Other piano pieces in the same vein can be heard here. Other beautiful Valcárcel songs can he heard here and here.) This is very beguiling music.

Robbles's music reminds me of the Latin American nationalist composers of the middle decades of the 20th Century and what they were about to develop - and what Aaron Copland was to take up so keenly. One of the elder statesmen of Peruvian music Celso Garrido-Lecca (b.1926) studied under Copland. It's to him we turn next. His rich and varied music also shows a strong interest in Peruvian folk music when it wants to, as can be heard in his Danzas Populares Andinas for violin and piano (1981) and his likeable Retablos Sinfónicos ('Symphonic Altarpieces') of 1980. The latter has some rather Copland-like syncopations. His Dúo concertante is scored for guitar and charango (an Andean instrument of the lute family), another manifestation of his interest in indigenous music, though it also reveals a neo-classical side to the composer. His mainstream modernist side (non-serial) comes out in pieces like the Trío para un nuevo tiempo from 1986, though glimpses of Peruvian folk music peep through from time to time even here. Soliloquio III (1997) is an engaging piece for bass and percussion - an unusual combination for sure. This again blends mainstream modernism (usually from the bass) with indigenous folk influences (generally voiced by the percussion). Something akin to this fusion of modernism and folkishness can also be heard in his Soliloquio I for solo flute (Berio's Sequenza were probably at the back of the composer's mind, I'm guessing). Going back to an early work like the lovely Música para teatro for wind quintet (1956) shows where some of these trends came from. This is neo-classical music that clearly knows its Stravinsky but isn't averse to giving us a taste of Peruvian folksong-type tunes too. Dipping back even further to 1953 shows something unexpected - a piece that does show a Schoenbergian influence, Orden for piano. There's quite a bit of Garrido-Lecca on YouTube - including a fair few pieces I've not featured here. Celso Garrido-Lecca is evidently a many-sided composer and you will, I think, exploring his output further. 

Stravinskyan harmonies can also be heard in the Suite for Orchestra of 1956 by Enrique Iturriaga (b.1918), who studied alongside Garrido-Lecca - a debt you can hear being honoured in his Homenaje a Stravinsky for percussion and orchestra. Both pieces suggest a composer with a flair for writing colourful, rhythmic music. That he can put such flair to more traditional uses can be heard in his rather old-fashioned but  accomplished Sinfonía Junín y Ayacucho - a late-Romantic symphony about two of the key battles in Peru's War of Independence. A widely performed piano piece of his (if YouTube is anything to go by), Pregón y danza, returns us to Stravinskyan harmonies - though rather pleasingly they are now allied to  impressionist piano writing in the first piece and somewhat Bartok-like piano writing in the second. 

Armando Guevara Ochoa (b.1923) passed away around a week ago. His Vilcanota for string orchestra is rather in the style of Robbles's Hymn to the Sun. It is pleasing, colourful and heavily melodic in a distinctly indigenous-sounding Peruvian way. Quite irresistible. He is classed as a "neoindigenista" composer. Other numbers in the same vein include Cusco and his solo flute piece Yaraví, danza y huayno. His symphonic poem Kukuli draws on similar themes and gives them a cinematic sweep. (I believe the piece was derived from a film score). Those who love colourfully nationalist postcard-type pieces (and who doesn't?) will great enjoy Ochoa's music. His Danza Criolla is a particularly delightful piece of Coplandiana. R.I.P.

One of the revelations from my surveys of Mexican, Chilean and Venezuelan music is the extent to which those countries have developed a musical avant-garde. Schoenberg and Hindemith shared an influence as teachers on José Malsio (1924-2007), as you can hear from his Danza para orquesta of 1948. (Yes, those who loathe this kind of music aren't even safe in a post about Peruvian classical music!)

When we come to Enrique Pinilla (1927-1989) we find ourselves meeting a composer who worked in the electroacoustic field. His Prisma (1967) is, if I may say so, a typical piece of avant-garde '60s electronic music - sounding perfect for a seriously scary horror movie set set in outer space (with very unfriendly aliens determined to do terrible things to the poor, hapless humans). You may think that sounds a facetious thing to say, but it isn't really - as you'll hear if you listen to the piece.

Theodoro Valcárcel's nephew Edgar Valcárcel (1932-2010) keeps us with the avant-garde - for a while at least. Here were are, back in the 1960s, listening to spacy, spooky electronic music in Invención from 1966. Enrique Pinilla's Prisma was the only piece I could find by him so it shouldn't be used to define the man's music. There's much more Edgar Valcárcel on the internet. His Piano Sonata No.2 (1971) is certainly avant-garde and seems to show the influence of his own exploration of electronic music, but it's utterly magical and (to my ears) a strikingly original piece of piano writing. Six years before he died, Edgar wrote a violin concerto of his own called...after the example of his uncle...Concierto Indio. It is a most intriguing piece, having some of the same lyrical qualities and making use of indigenous melodies in much the same way as Uncle Theodoro but melding them into a mainstream modernist language. This is, like its model, a piece that deserves an international megastar to take it up and sweep it to the world's attention. By 2004, like much of the composing world, Edgar had evidently abandoned the avant-garderie of his younger self, and you can hear that process in action (with Peruvian melodies galore) in the richly-imagined Coral y Sikuri of 1994 (a fantastic piece) and, from slightly earlier, in the 1989 orchestral score Ácora. I was, in passing, pleased to see the title Homenaje a Duparc among the composer's worklist. That master of French song deserves homage.

Francisco Pulgar Vidal (1929-2012) pursued a more traditional path throughout, whether writing a rather Ravelian early string quartet - the String Quartet No.1 of 1953 - or a colourful symphony (shades of Chávez,  Revueltas and Stravinsky) with a strong Peruvian folk flavour - his Sinfonía Nasca (extracts only) of 1987. I enjoyed both pieces, as I did the large-scale cantata Apu Inqa of 1970 (manifesting many of the same influences as the symphony), with its chant-like choral writing, insistent rhythms and percussion-rich orchestration. This entertaining piece deserves to travel well beyond Peru. Pulgar Vidal's roots in Stravinsky, pretty apparent in the symphony and the cantata, become even clearer in Vallejiana No.7, "Los Nueve Monstruos" for soprano, vibraphone, timpani and piano from 1990 (like Les Noces meets Carl Orff).

There does seem to be a lot of fine Peruvian classical music out there. I'll end this post with a piece from 2000 by José Sosaya (b.1956) that seems to unite the spirit of the earliest music of Peru with its most modern (electroacoustic), his Voces. There are a lot of Peruvian voices (not just Juan Diego Florez!)

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Friends Reunited

"Storace gave a quartet party to his friends. The players were tolerable; not one of them excelled on the instrument he played, but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them:
    First Violin: Haydn
    Second Violin: Baron Dittersdorf
    Violoncello: Vanhal
    Viola: Mozart.
I was there, and a greater treat, or a more remarkable one, cannot be imagined."

So reminisced the Irish actor and singer, Michael Kelly. His image of four of the most famous composers of the late 18th Century playing string quartets together (not perfectly!) is one of the most engaging in music. 

I thought it might be fun to present you with a concert of string quartets by all four of these composers. 

Let's start with the first violinist, Haydn, and his String Quartet in D major, Op.20/4 - one of the Sun Quartets. Its beautiful opening theme is, if I may use an extended simile, rather like a busy quarry, with the composer continuing to dig away at it and carry its material to construction sites across the opening Allegro. The most obvious elements of this theme are the repeating note figure (always four in number, the last longer than the preceding three notes) and a little turning figure. The former in particular plays a major role, underpinning and driving the action in passage after passage. Haydn doesn't overpower us with it however, and its presence can be discreet at times. Drama, lyricism and occasional flashes of brilliance are the hallmarks of this first-rate movement. The development section is especially fiery at times and contains a classic Haydn false reprise. The following Adagio is a theme and variations in D minor on a long, grave melody. The first variation syncopates the tune, the second gives the cello an opportunity to sing expressively, the third allows some elaborate violin figuration to decorate its bare bones while the fourth re-sings the grave melody much as before though with an intensified climax of considerable power that flows into a lovely coda. The Minuet is marked 'alla zingarese' ('in gypsy style') and is spry, folk-like, full of cross rhythms and utterly delightful. The cello decorates the trio section's simple dance tune in a way that doesn't sound very simple to play! This excellent quartet ends with an entertaining Finale marked 'Presto e scherzando', which continues the Minuet's gypsy-style brilliance and folk-like material but places them in a sonata-form structure and gives them extra vim. It may have a sense of driving purpose at times but it's essentially light-hearted, giddy even.

Let's now hear from the second violinist, Baron Carl Ditters von Ditters von Dittersdorf...erm, no...make that Baron Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. (I got carried away). His string quartets are, unlike Haydn's and (most of) Mozart's, in just three movements. I've chosen the String Quartet No.2 in B flat major. The opening Moderato, especially if heard immediately after the wonderful Haydn work, makes it very clear from the start that the level of mastery, inspiration and genius has dropped considerably since the preceding piece. Dittersdorf, after all, is no Haydn. We already knew that though, didn't we? And once we accept that his tunes are necessarily going to be blander, his transitions more pedestrian and over-reliant on sequences, his working-out less intellectually satisfying and his harmonic architecture less purposeful, we can sit back in our chairs and enjoy the easy-going flow of the baron's agreeable music. (Unfair comparisons can be so invidious - says he, having just made one!) A relaxed and charming Andante follows (my favourite movement) and there's a leisurely and charming theme and variations Finale to follow. 

After the audience have finished chatting to each other about how nice that piece by the baron was, the players reconvene and are about to perform a quartet by their cellist - the Bohemian composer Johann Baptist Vanhal. We're lifting the tonality here, as it's his String Quartet No.2 in F major that we're about to hear. Now this is also a leap back up the ladder of inspiration. The opening Allegro has purpose, makes some unexpected harmonic moves and has attractive themes (with a flavour of folk music to the continuation of the main subject). The connoisseurs in the audience have pricked there ears up by this stage. "By the Emperor, this is jolly good!", they think. And they're right. They are also pleased at the following Andante, with its intriguing first violin melody (lots of plunges by a tenth - though they are artfully concealed) and its unhurried character, though this is lighter stuff. The concluding Presto is a lively sonata form movement, with a strong dip into the minor during the development section. Vanhal earns an appreciate round of applause for himself here. Yes, he's no Haydn either, but he's a fine composer nonetheless.

Now it's time for our final work in the concert and it's by our violist Mozart. We returning tonally to where we began with the String Quartet in D major, K499 (nicknamed the 'Hoffmeister' after Baywatch legend David a friend called Hoffmeister). This is an immensely likeable piece. It may not touch the emotional depths that some of his quartets do (that's for sure!), but its optimism and sheer craftsmanship more than make up for that. The opening Allegretto is deliciously tuneful, with more than a flavour of folk music about the main tune and an equally glorious (though more urbane) second subject. What sets this movement apart is the way the folk-like main theme is worked in the development - urgent thematic and harmonic working that owes much to the example of Haydn. The tip-back into the recapitulation is masterful. It's my favourite movement. The swinging Minuet has a courtly air, with a winning main melody and nothing of the countryside about it. The trio section, with its busy triplets, strikes a bright and lively note. The canonic exchanges in each section add a degree of classical chamber music depth. The Adagio isn't one of those succulent pro-Romantic ones which send Mozart-lovers swooning but a cooler, more Haydn-like affair. The violin sings it like an elaborate aria. The closing pages are especially lovely. The final Rondo has something of the light-hearted numbers from The Magic Flute about it (not that the opera was yet written at the time of the Hoffmeister) and gives this genial quartet a particularly cheerful ending. I must tell you that the cognoscenti (of our day) don't seem to rank the piece as highly as the quartets which precede it (the 'Haydn Quartets'). The work's relative simplicity appears to put them off.

As the audience mingled afterwards, out of ear-shot of the four performers, everyone agreed how delightful the concert had been. As often happens the conversation then turned to the relative qualities of the pieces we'd heard and to which composer the laurels should be awarded. In a loud (some might say deafening) voice I stepped forward and declared the winner to be Haydn. Obviously. Others disagreed and a ridiculously heated argument ensued, more suited to the modern internet than a Viennese salon. A Dittersdorf supporter actually threatened to block or even ban a Vanhal enthusiast from saying another word after the latter called him 'a troll', saying he'd find out his IP number. As this was 1785, no one had a clue what either of them were talking about. As, hopefully, neither will you.