Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Waltz VII: The Waltz Heads East

As Dvorak's interest in the form tells us, the Slavs certainly took to the waltz, generally speaking. It's right to speak generally because a composer like Smetana didn't concern himself (as far as I can see) with the waltz at all, preferring more specifically Czech forms of dance. 

Mikhail Glinka set the ball rolling in Russia, as he so often did. His Valse-Fantasie in B major of 1856 is one of his best orchestral pieces and has a very Russian-sounding main melody allied to the traditional rhythms of the Central European waltz and to more general-sounding waltz tunes. 

You can hear the origins of certain strains of Tchaikovsky's music in Glinka's Valse-Fantasie. Besides the great symphonic waltzes described in an earlier post, Tchaikovsky's output is full of delicious waltzes, making him one of the greatest of all waltz kings. His first surviving work was a waltz - the Anastasie-Valse of 1854. The rest of his output for piano brings such things as the Valse caprice, Op.4, the Valse-Scherzo No.1, Op.7, the Valse in A flat major, Op.40/8 (played in the link by Rachmaninov no less) and the Valse in F sharp minor, Op.40/9, the Valse from Album for the Young, Op.39, the Valse de salon Op.51/1 and Valse sentimentale, Op.51/6, not to mention the Valse bluette, Op.72/11, the Valse à cinq temps, Op.72/16 and December from The Seasons. You will almost certain also enjoy the Valse-Scherzo, Op.34 for violin and orchestra from 1877. I think it's fair to s, ay that none of these waltzes quite matches the delights provided by the second movement of the much-loved Serenade for Strings, Op.48The second movement of the Second Orchestral Suite, Op.53 and the second movement of the Third Orchestral Suite, Op.55 are both (in their different ways) enchanting, and the Second Act of his masterly opera Eugene Onegin contains a waltz straight out of the composer's top drawer. Of course, the three great ballets give us some of Tchaikovsky's finest waltzes - and what waltzes they are! From Swan Lake comes this from Act I and this from Act II. From Sleeping Beauty comes the Garland Waltz. Finally, from The Nutcracker comes the Waltz of the Flowers and the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Everyone loves the Waltz of the Flowers but many a critic has a real downer on the Waltz of the Snowflakes. I've seen it described as "gormless". Call me a man of bad taste, but I've always had a real soft spot for it. All together now: "AH, AH, ah-ah, AH"!

A composer sometimes maligned (or, in some works, fairly described) as producing 'watered-down Tchaikovsky', Anton Arensky, produced one of the best of all Russian waltzes - the Valse from his Suite No.1, Op.15 for two pianos - a number that combines considerable brilliance of technique and elegance of invention with a first-rate tune, which comes around and is decorated and dissolved again and again. 

Alexander Glazunov's Concert Waltz No.1 has more than a little of Tchaikovsky's waltzing spirit about it and, unsurprising, this beautifully-scored and melodically enticing slice of Tchaikovsky-style orchestral writing has become one of its composer's most played pieces. One success is, understandably, likely to make a composer try again and hope for a second success. His Concert Waltz No.2 isn't really in the same league as its predecessor but it is far from unattractive.  His loveable ballet The Seasons contains another endearing waltz, the Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppiesand his other popular ballet, Raymonda, contains waltzes like the Valse fantastique and the Grand Waltz.

I'm saving one the best of Sergei Rachmaninov's waltz-inspired pieces for another post, but there are other gems from his pen that will slot in nicely here. There's a charming Valse and Romance for six hands (piano) from 1890-1, the Valse from the solo Morceaux de salon, Op.10 the excellent Valse from the Six Morceaux, Op.11 for piano duet and the Valse from the Suite No.2, Op.17.

Yes, the Russians write good waltzes. That was to continue into the Twentieth Century, though two of its most pioneering figures weren't really waltz kings.

Alexander Scriabin pretty much began composing by writing waltzes. His Valse in F minor, Op.1 was composed at the age of 13. He didn't sustain that interest, however, and later efforts, like the Waltz in A flat major, Op.38, though entertaining, seems out-of-place and old-fashioned in the context of everything else he was writing at that time.

We've already encountered Igor Stravinsky's Lanner appropriations for his Petruskha waltz. His other waltzes are similarly distanced in tone, such as the Waltz (beginning at 1.46) from The Soldier's Tale, the deliciously mechanical-sounding yet wacky Waltz (beginning at 1.31) from the Three Easy Pieces (a little gem) and the somewhat similar Valse pour les enfants.

The lack of Romanticism in Stravinsky's waltzes is hardly surprising. Shostakovich's waltzes are hardly likely to sound like Glazunov either, though they are bound to be a bit warmer. We've already met his less than straight symphonic take on the waltz and now it's time to introduce his popular waltzes from the feel-good Jazz Suites. If you click on any on the following numbers it will bear you hot-foot to a Shostakovich waltz - one of which is particularly well-loved. (How teasing of me!): 1, 2, 3, 4. The first three are somewhat cut from the same cloth, aren't they? It's a cloth it's fun to have pieces cut from though! The charm of the fourth is rather different, and it leads me on to the Waltz-Scherzo from The Bolt via the Ballet Suites - a top-notch piece of light music that does seem to have a little Tchaikovsky (and something of Petrushka) about it. If you don't know this Waltz-Scherzo, I strongly recommend it to you. It might make your day. The other waltzes from the Ballet Suites are the Waltz from The Human Comedy and the Waltz from The Limpid Stream. Such enjoyable music! (The complete Jazz and Ballet Suites can be relished here - and should be, if you want to give yourself an hour or so of non-stop fun).

Prokofiev's waltzes are just as tasty. Who could resist Since We Met from War and Peace? Prokofiev arranged the same number for piano, here played by Richter. Fabulous in either version. Another waltz from the opera may be enjoyed here and more Richter, this time playing the Grand Waltz from the ballet Cinderella, really ought to be listened to here. The utterly magical orchestral version of this waltz is available here - music so good it brings a lump to my throat. This version even has a slow introduction to match any by the Strausses for sheer enchantment. This is one of my favourite pieces of music. The other waltz from Cinderella brings another glorious tune.  As these four waltzes (in their various incarnations) demonstrate, Prokofiev is one of the supreme masters of waltz. Less familiar - and less special - are the two Pushkin waltzes, written to mark the poet's 150th anniversary in 1949. Less special, but still likeable. There's one more waltz-gem by Prokofiev but, as with that special piece by Rachmaninov, I want to save it for another post.

Alfred Schnittke wrote music for a TV programme called The Waltz. I've no knowledge as to whether the programme was about the waltz or not, though the movements (1.Building plot, 2.Coach, 3.Factory & 4.Vovka) suggest possibly not. You'll recognise a borrowed tune from a certain Viennese waltz composer (now who could that be?) though. The score is rather dream-like (nightmarish at times). It seems to be written in much the same spirit as Rodion Shchedrin's contemporary Carmen Suite. It's a fascinating find. Mysterious and sinister waltzes about in Schnittke's music - numbers like the waltz from The Story of an Unknown Actor (like a creepy take on a Shostakovich 'jazz'-waltz) or the rather obsessive waltz from Clowns and Children or the grotesque waltzes The Portrait and The Ball from the Gogol Suite. Aren't they all excellent? The Tempo di Valse movement from his great Piano Quintet offers another of these hallucinatory visions...

....and it's to the sinister side of the waltz that I will be turning next. Do you smell the sulphur yet?

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