Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mozart gets my GOAT

Baseball fans will argue until they are blue in the face about everything and anything. Was this player “Safe” or “Our”? Was that ball “Fair” or “Foul”? Who was the better pitcher: Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver?

Everybody has their GOAT - “Greatest of All Time”. Honus Wagner? Ty Cobb? Babe Ruth? Is that before or after the Colour Barrier was broken? Was that before or after games were played at night? Do “Steroid era” players get considered?

To me, the GOAT was Willie Mays. He could do everything – he could hit, he could run, he could play the field… Everybody remembers that catch at the Polo Grounds during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. I wasn’t born yet, but I saw the footage. Nobody will ever remember Vic Wertz – the guy who thought he hit it out of Mays’ reach – but he’s viewed today as a goat of a different kind…
Baseball fans aren’t the only ones to debate things, as we humanoids are an argumentative bunch! The GOAT argument is something that transcends baseball and gets into every human endeavor, and the parameters that make somebody ”great” are always open to interpretation.
Although it may not be a fair question to ask, who is – in your mind – the GOAT among Classical Music luminaries – composers, performers…

Not easy…

The reason why it isn’t easy is because the playing field isn’t level. Going back to baseball for a minute, the game has evolved a lot over 100-plus years, athletes are bigger and stronger, the parameters of play have changed – whether the pitcher’s mound was at this or that height, whether seasons had this many or that many games, whether or not teams travelled from coast to coast. I mean, it’s hard to come up with ways of compensating for these factors when players played under different conditions.

Rather than come up with pie charts and graphs to justify my answer, let me just come out and make a statement – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is Classical Music’s GOAT, the Greatest of All Time.
We all know the story, and we all saw the film [Amadeus (1984)]. Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already accomplished on keyboard, he picked up the violin and became so good at it that he was second (and sometimes first) chair on the Salzburg court orchestra! He composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty.
At 17, he was engaged as a court musician in Salzburg, but grew restless and travelled in search of a better position, always composing abundantly. While visiting Vienna in 1781, he was dismissed from his Salzburg position. He chose to stay in the capital, where he achieved fame - but little financial security.

During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known symphonies, concertos, and operas, and portions of the Requiem, which was largely unfinished at the time of his death. The circumstances of his early death have been much mythologized (RE: the afore-mentioned Amadeus).
To say that Mozart was prolific is an understatement – J.S. Bach’s works catalogue more than doubles the size of Mozart’s, but he did live to a ripe old age… Mozart wrote in many genres (opera, symphony) that weren’t in vogue - and he wrote for instrument combinations that weren’t usual - in Bach’s time. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concerto, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers, and his influence on subsequent Western art music is profound.

This summer, all my Friday blogs will feature the music of Mozart, most of them from past posts from my many plartforms. I also am programming four new podcasts dedicated to the Mozart piano concertos, feauring foive great pianists of the 2oth century. Here’s the menu –

July 3 - Ideomeneo re di Creta (Past post from my series Once or Twice a Fortnighthttp://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/07/mozarts-idomeneo.html
July 10 – Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is featured in three Mozart piano concertos http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/07/mitsuko-uchida-mozart.html
July 17 - Mozart's European Vacation (Encore from ITYWLTMT) http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/07/mozarts-european-vacation.html
July 24 – Pianist Clara Haskil is featured in three Mozart piano concertos http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/07/clara-haskil-mozart.html
August 7 – Pianists Murray Perahia & Radu Lupu are featured in three Mozart piano concertos – one each individually, and one as a tandem http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/08/radu-lupu-murray-perahia-mozart.html
August 21 – Pianist Geza Anda is featured in three Mozart piano concertos http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/08/geza-anda-mozart.html

August 29 – Mozart and his Horny Friends http://itywltmt.blogspot.com/2015/08/mozart-his-horny-friends.html

Friday, June 26, 2015

Franck & Fauré

No. 204 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast204

This week ends our several week-long look at the sonata, and is our last Blog and Podcast before we enter an “every other week” format of new montages for July and August.

The sonatas in A Major by Cesar Franck and Gabriel Faure are probably one of the most recorded “pairings” of similar works in the same key , other than maybe the pairing of the A Minor piano concertos of Edvard Grieg and Robert Schumann. Unlike the Grieg/Schumann pairing, the works by the Belgian and French composers are contemporary to each other, and the composers were – if not friends – certainly well aware of each other’s work.

In a post from a couple of years ago in my Once Upon the Internet series, I featured both sonatas adapted for cello and piano from the original violin and piano. The rich sound of the cello confers a different character to the sonatas, and is worth taking in for comparison – some of you may even prefer these adaptations to the originals.

Today’s montage assigns the sonatas to different pairs of performers – the Franck is played by the Lefèvre brothers, and the Fauré is played by the studio coupling of Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Both performances are heart felt and strong in their own right.

To complete the montage, I added a cello sonata by Fauré.

I think you will love this music too.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sonatas with orchestra and soloist

No. 203  of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast203

A few months ago, we discussed concertos in many different forms, and featured some sinfonie concertanti, works that feature a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment yet are not called “concertos”, either for historical reasons or because the solo instrument doesn’t get “equal billing”.

I’d suggest that listeners consider the short set of selections I retained today in the same vein – these are called “sonatas”, but they could also be “concertos”, if only because of the way they have been constructed; with a solo instrument and an accompanying orchestra.

Case in point: Nicolo Paganini’s “grande sonate” for viola and orchestra. There is no doubt that the viola is the feature performer. Yes, there are episodes where the orchestra is front and center but, as we heard last week in the Beethoven sonatas, it’s not uncommon for the accompanist to hog the spotlight…

Works by Corelli and Purcell, from the baroque period, are probably a more apt example of what we would take as a sonata, as many compositions of that era didn’t feature a solo instrument and a keyboard accompaniment – sometimes, accompaniment was intended for a small complement of instruments – thus the sonata a cinque or the sonata a quattro

Johannes Brahms wrote chamber works for the clarinet rather late in his career – his quintet for clarinet and stings, a trio for piano, violin and clarinet and a pair of sonatas for clarinet and piano, both published under his op. 120.  Luciano Berio, an avant-garde composer in his own right, often orchestrated works by other composers, and he provided his own orchestration of the piano accompaniment to the first of these sonatas, a work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered with clarinetist Michele Zukovsky in Los Angeles, on 6 November 1986.

To complete the montage, I retained a sampling of some of the seventeen Church Sonatas (sonata di chiesa), also known as Epistle Sonatas, written by Mozart between 1772 and 1780. These are short single-movement pieces intended to be played during a celebration of the Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel – a place where contemporary Mass inserts the “Hallelujah”. The vast majority of these are scored for organ and strings (with no violas). In eight of the sonatas, the organ has an obbligato solo part and in the other nine the organ accompanies along with the figured bass.

Shortly after Mozart left Salzburg, the Archbishop mandated that an appropriate choral motet or congregational hymn be sung at that point in the liturgy, and the "Epistle Sonata" fell into disuse. Thankfully, there are many recordings of these sonatas, including this fine one by I Musici de Montreal and baroque organist Genevieve Soly.

I think you will love this music too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Part 2)

This is a past Tuesday Blog from Jun-16-2015. 

This week’s PTB concludes our look at the J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin with the three partitas and – as a bonus, the partita for solo flute all performed on the viola by Scott Slapin.

According to notes available on the Eroica Classical Recordings website Myron Rosenblum, founder and first president of the American Viola Society wrote, "Scott Slapin is a musician of great talent and abilities - a violist of technical accomplishments and superior musicality. He is a violist to watch".

Scott Slapin studied the viola at the Manhattan School of Music and earned his Bachelor of Music degree by the age of eighteen, making him one of the youngest graduates in the school's history.

Scott began his professional career as the on-stage solo violist in the New York City production of Orpheus in Love (1992-93), a chamber opera by Gerald Busby and Craig Lucas He has premiered other works by Busby including his Muse for Solo Viola in Carnegie's Weill Hall (1994), and he has inspired other outstanding American composers including Richard LaneDavid Noon and Frank Proto to write him solo works as well. In the late 1990's, Scott gave the premiere performances of Richard Lane's Third Viola Sonata and Nocturne for Solo Viola.

Scott and his wife, violist Tanya Solomon, often perform together as a duo, and have toured extensively throughout the United States and South America as members of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and they are former principal violists of the Knoxville and Chattanooga symphonies.

Scott was the first violist in history to have recorded the complete cycle of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas on the viola, a cd-set which has been widely featured in print and on radio. Here is an excerpt from an article written by Scott about the sonatas and partitas:

I feel the Sonatas and Partitas are the best solo Bach the viola has. Yes, as a cycle, better than the Cello Suites. […] From my vantage point, it would seem natural, since we have no solo Bach of our own, to borrow from the closer instrument of the two, which is the violin.

[…] Bach himself transcribed many of his own works into different keys for different instrumentation-- including several movements from the Sonatas and Partitas. […] As great as the Cello Suites are, I feel the Sonatas and Partitas as an overall set are simply even greater, more interesting music. Bach, the master of polyphony, clearly felt technically freer with the violin to write more complex works. Whether we're talking about the three-part fugues, the Chaconne, or the beautiful slow movements of the sonatas, the additional lines that are close to non-existant or just hinted at in most of the Cello Suites really add to the beauty and interest of the violin sonatas and partitas.

Lastly there's the issue of the viola's character and the character of the music; […] most of the Sonatas and Partitas are very introspective, contemplative (the opening movements of all three sonatas come to mind.) I think many of the movements gain depth by being played a fifth lower. While I enjoy the Cello Suites an octave higher on the viola, I'm not sure that I look at any of the movements on viola as an improvement or as enhancing their musical character, I tend to see it as just something different.

Hard to disagree!

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partitas (Partias) for solo violin
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006
Partita in A minor for Solo Flute , BWV 1013

Scott Slapin, viola
(1st recording of these works by S. Slapin. Jan 1998)
Eroica Classical Recordings JDT-3025
Downloaded from MP3.COM, 15 May 2002

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sonatas by Beethoven

No. 202 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast202


Week two of our June sonata series is dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven left us 32 sonatas for solo piano, but also a several sonatas for instruments with piano accompaniment, and I selected three of those.

Pianist and composer Andre Gagnon wrote many lovely pieces of music, but one comes to mind specifically when I think of works for a feature instrument with piano accompaniment – this piece is called Premier Episode, and was his way of paying tribute to the many singers he worked with, and accompanied as a pianist, especially early in his career: Claude Leveillee and Monique Leyrac are two names that come to mind. In that setting, the solo flute “stands in” for the singer, and though at one point he introduces a string orchestra into the mix, the early measures display the piano, playing chords as ornamentation to a melody.

When I think of sonatas for, say, the violin with piano accompaniment, that’s the image that I have in my mind – like a “singer”, the solo instrument is allowed to shine, sometimes relinquishing the spotlight to the accompanying piano, but sometimes taking center stage. A sonata is not unlike a song or lieder cycle – the movements aren’t so disparate that you can’t recognize that they form an homogeneous group of short pieces.

Let’s start with two rather familiar sonatas – the Kreutzer sonata for violin and the op. 69 cello sonata in A Major. Both are mainstays in the chamber repertoire for their respective instruments, and they are performed here by top artists in Gidon Kremer and Mstislav Rostropovich. As pianists, both Martha Argerich and Sviatoslav Richter are not too shabby either.

The first sonata of the set, the op. 17 sonata in F Major is sometimes heard for cello and piano – we offered such a setting in a post from earlier this year in our Once Upon the Internet series. The setting in the montage is the original pairing of horn and piano.

I think you will love this music too.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sonatas for solo instrument

No. 201 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast201


June already!

As the days get longer and the weather (finally) gets warmer, we start thinking about the summer and for me here at ITYWLTMT, a two-month semi-break where we will be recycling some old posts and featuring a handful of new ones that will focus on Mozart. More on that in a “programming” post near the end of the month.

In the meantime, we will continue on a theme we started last week – the theme is “sonatas”. Indeed, three of our montages featured piano sonatas by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Liszt but, as you know, there are many more sonata “variants” than the sonata for solo piano – there are indeed many other variants and even some for other solo instruments. Today’s montage considers sonatas for solo instruments “other” than the piano.

Three of the selections I have programmed today consider sonatas for the solo violin – the first is by Johann Sebastian Bach. One of Bach’s best loved movements for solo violin is the chaconne from his second partita for solo violin, and that chaconne inspired two other 20th century composers and their own sonatas – by violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaye, and by Bela Bartok.

Another violin virtuoso who left us solo sonatas is Nicolo Paganini; Paganini was not only the devilish violinist of renoun, but also an excellent guitarist, and the sonatas of his I chose for today are a pair of short sonatas for the guitar.

An organ sonata from Vincenzo Bellini’s student days and a guitar adaptation of one of the many short keyboard sonatas of Padre Soler complete this week’s selections.

I think you will love this music too.