Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Edvard Grieg, Václav Neumann, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Adele Stolte ‎– Peer Gynt

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

Henrik Ibsen ‘s five act play Peer Gynt is one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays. It is loosely based on a Norwegian fairy tale (Per Gynt) which tells the story of the eponymous Per Gynt, a hunter from Kvam, and his various exploits. Gynt rescues three dairy-maids from trolls and shoots the Bøyg, a gigantic, worm-shaped troll-being. The fairy tale is most famously recorded by Asbjørnsen and Moe in Norwegian Folktales. Ibsen believed that the legend of Per Gynt was rooted in fact, and his play is also tinged with characters modelled after Ibsen's own family.

Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for the play. Grieg composed a score (his op. 23) that plays approximately ninety minutes. Grieg extracted two suites of four pieces each from the incidental music (Opp. 46 and 55), which became very popular as concert music. The music of these suites, especially Morning Mood starting the first suite, In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the string lament Åse's Death later reappeared in numerous arrangements, soundtracks, etc.

For many years, the suites were the only parts of the music that were available, as the original score was not published until 1908, one year after Grieg's death, by Johan Halvorsen. 

The complete score of the incidental music includes several songs and choral pieces. The complete score was believed to be lost until the 1980s and has only been performed in its entirety since then. Some recordings that claim to contain the complete incidental music have 33 and 49 selections including several verses from the drama, read by actors. The original score contains 26 sections.

This week’s Vinyl’s Revenge can be thought of different ways – the one I espouse follows the line that many conductors create their own “concert suites” of music of great stage works, not necessarily following strictly published ones. We’ve seen that for some of the great ballets of Tchaikovsky,Prokofiev and even Khachaturian – Khachaturian himself recorded concert suites that don’t strictly follow his published ones!

This sampling by Czech conductor Václav Neumann of the incidental music for Peer Gynt– though it does include all eight sections that make up the official suites – is a “performance suite” of the incidental music, which is why I attributed it the opus 23.

Two tracks from this album are sung in German by soprano Adele Stolte, including Solveig’s Song(typically performed in concert as an instrumental section from the op. 55 suite).

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt, op.23 (Incidental Music, selections) 

  • Norwegian Bridal Procession
  • Overture To Act II: The Abduction And Ingrid's Lament
  • In The Hall Of The Mountain King
  • Aase's Death
  • Overture To Act IV: Morning Mood
  • Arabian Dance
  • Anitra's Dance
  • Solveig's Song
  • Prelude To Act V: Peer Gynt's Homecoming
  • Solveig's Lullaby (Soprano Vocals – Adele Stolte)

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Václav Neumann, conducting
Philips ‎– 6570 017 (Festivo – Vinyl, LP, Reissue) 

(Posted to YoutTube by R Foekens, with thanks!)

Internet Archive URL - https://archive.org/details/EdvardGriegMusicToPeerGyntOp.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Harmonious WInds

No. 224 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast224

Our two next Blogs and Podcasts will feature ensemble music – that is to say, music intended for a group of musicians that don’t quite form an orchestra. The two montages address the case of string ensembles (or string orchestras, if you will) and the case of the wind band (as we say in French, orchestre d’harmonie or simply harmonie).

Without getting too technical (or without scooping my Project 366 post for August) an orchestra is made up of strings, wind instruments and percussions. A wind band is made up exclusively of wind (that is, woodwind and brass) instruments, and is often augmented with some percussion – especially in the case of the military band.

As we pointed out in our last post on nonets, some instruments come in different “voice tones” – a lot like the 4-stringed bowed instrument family of violin, viola, cello and double bass. The clarinet, the oboe (with the English horn) flute (with the piccolo) , the bassoon (with the counter-bassoon) and saxophone are examples of instruments that have different versions tuned to different registers. Those aren’t necessarily  part of the “standard” orchestra make-up, as they often are only called upon iof a specific work requires it. However, in a wind band we expect to see most instruments represented in all tgheir registers, if only to provide more colours for the composer to express him or herself.

Works I selected for today’s montage come from the classical (Mozart’s Divertimento for Winds) all the way to the 20th century. For a second montage in a row, Felix Mendelssohn makes the cut (and, be advised, he returns next time, too!) with his delightful overture for wind instruments, and a seldom heard sinfonia for winds by opera’s Donizetti I thought was an interesting addition. The remainder of the montage focuses on military band – a set of variations by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, a less-heard orchestral suite from the March King John Phillip Sousa, and a collection of military marches (sometimes referred to as allemandes) by Ludwig Van Beethoven.

I think you will love this music too!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Project 366 - A Few Friends

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

We spent the last two installments of this project discussing music performed by a solo instrument. Now, we should look at the most common form of intimate recital music – music for two, three or four players.

Like painters, composers want to exploit as large a palette as possible. This palette, as we saw in our earlier illustrations, consists primarily of tonal colours and stylistic or virtuoso colours like dynamics.

Where much can be said and attempted with a single performer, much like in the case of “the one man show” in theatre, a composer is limited to a single voice, a single line. This is precisely why performing music with more than one musician is a logical progression – we can now not only increase the tonal palette by adding instruments that extend the range of tones, we can also use these instruments to convey concurrent themes, that serve to enhance the musical message.

Musical Democracy

But like any great idea, there are drawbacks, and the main drawback here is “playing together”. 

Music now becomes a democratic endeavour, where the ideas of more than one performer now need to coalesce into a singular vision of the piece. It makes intuitive sense that a small group of performers (two, three or four) is an environment where this level of harmony and cohesion is most easily achievable.

Case in point: the most common form of musical duo (or duet) follows the formula “piano and (your instrument here)”. And with that, we launch into a new discussion on “democracy at work”, and it has to do with who gets “top billing” – are these works “for instrument with piano accompaniment”, works for “piano featuring an additional instrument” or pieces where the instruments are true equals?

In principle, the idea behind having two performers is that they are assigned different “roles” and different “lines”. The device that we recognize most often – from our experience with songs – is that one role provides the main message, whilst the other is confined in a supporting or background role. In the case of a duet featuring, say, piano and violin, we can readily imagine the violin playing the dominant musical idea – it has, after all, the higher pitched voice – with the piano playing a complimentary role, providing the “baseline”. There are indeed many pieces of the repertoire where this is exactly what happens.

More often than not, however, a duet is about “passing the baton” in some sort of “relay” scenario. At times, the violin plays the principal theme seconded by the piano, and at other times the piano carries the load with the violin emphasizing certain passages or enhancing them with its own colours.

The best duets are therefore the ones where the load is shared equally, where the emphasis is on piano “and” instrument, and it matters little whether it’s “cheese and macaroni” or “macaroni and cheese”.
We may call them duos and duets, but the bulk of music for two performers of significance are rightly called sonatas, and like we saw when we analyzed Mozart’s Turkish Rondo piano sonata, a sonata is a piece made up of several movements of alternating and contrasting character.

This is not to say that the duo repertoire is exclusively made up of sonatas, but these are the pieces you are most likely to encounter in recital or in recordings.

Duo combinations are, well, as varied as there are combinations of instruments – they can be two of the same instrument, or two different instruments. They can exploit the same range of tones, or different ranges. It’s really up to the composer to “pick and choose” what makes most sense.

The piano duet is a particular example that has this unique twist – two pianists can be playing on the same instrument (what we call “piano 4-hands”) or they can be playing on two different pianos (or, aptly, “two pianos, 4-hands”).

Three’s Company

They were three of the world’s most formidable musicians, and in 1949 they were invited to perform together during a series of four concerts in Chicago. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and violinist Jascha Heifetz drew great crowds, and the newly-formed threesome was so successful that one critic referred to them as “The Million Dollar Trio.”

Rubinstein reported later that Heifetz was particularly perturbed by the billing in the concert programs because Rubinstein’s name always came first, followed by Heifetz and then Piatigorsky. Heifetz wondered why the billing couldn’t rotate so that each of them would be mentioned first at one time or another.

Rubenstein apparently said that he didn’t mind, but as far as he knew, all trios are written for piano, violin, and cello, and traditionally one advertises the names of the players in exactly that order. As Heifetz insisted, Rubinstein lost his temper, “Jascha,” he shouted, “even if God were playing the violin, it would be printed Rubinstein, God, and Piatigorsky, in that order!”

So much for democracy!

When Rubenstein says that trios are mainly scored for piano, violin and cello, he’s not strictly right, though the vast majority of trios written in the classical and romantic periods have done just that. However, since any combination of three instruments can be featured in a trio, we have great examples of works that feature a wide range of instruments and colours. Brahms wrote a late trio for piano, clarinet and violin that is quite exquisite!

Another form of trio, that is most common in jazz, is what we’ll call the rhythm trio: piano, bass and drums.

Unlike in the case of duos or duets where works that adhere to the sonata formula are called sonatas and not duets, sonatas rarely retain that name when we have three performers – they are called trios.

Four is a Magic Number

Have you heard the term “magic number”? Magic numbers are quite the rage in professional sports – people who follow team standings as seasons near completion figure out how many wins are needed to “clinch” first place or a spot in post-season play. That’s one form of magic number.

In Physics, magic numbers have to do with atomic configurations, and how many electrons are needed to fill up a particular energy level.

There’s something about “magic numbers” – they seem to indicate the “right number” It’s the “Goldilocks” principle – not too much, not too little, just right.

I can’t rightly explain why four is the “magic number” of performers you need to create music. It just is.  Quartets are the epitome of chamber music combinations, providing the right number of individual voices to perform a work of music, the right number of people to have in a group to still achieve “democratic results” without the need for coercion or persuasion.

The prevalent combination for a quartet is what we’ve come to call a string quartet – two violins, a viola and a cello. From a tonal perspective, this combination achieves breadth and balance. From a harmony perspective, it provides so many possibilities – concurrent lines, alternating voices at different registers. No wonder so many composers – from the Classical all the way to Contemporary, have penned so many works for that combination!

Joseph Haydn, the great master of the Classical era, is often called the “father of the String Quartet”. He composed 83 and perfected the genre, I suspect his studies in quartet harmony informed his symphonies (he wrote 104 of those!) as well as vehicles for private performance by the “academy musicians” that were under his charge in the court of Esterhazy.

Haydn isn’t alone – Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak and Shostakovich are but a few of the composers over the ages that have contributed to the genre (all four combined, however, didn’t compose as many as Haydn…).

Johannes Brahms wrote string quartets too, but he also composed piano quartets – where he adds a viola to the standard piano trio. In fact, those three piano quartets are probably performed more often than his string quartets!

Again, we rarely talk of sonatas for quartet – they are just quartets. There are, however, a curious set of pieces that the great Italian opera master Gioacchino Rossini (then a teenager) write for two violins, cello and double bass which he called sonate a quattro

Exploring the chamber repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #11 - "Piano, Piano": Our look at duets begins with some works for two pianists. Works by Busoni, Arensky, Schubert and Bartok. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #184 - 6 Feb 2015)

Listener Guide #12 - "Mozart, Mozart (... and Barylli & Badura-Skoda)": Violinist Walter Barylli and pianist Paul Badura-Skoda perform selected sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart (Once Upon the Internet #34 - 17 Feb 2015)

Listener Guide #13 - "Franck & Fauré": Our look at duets turns now to sonatas by French masters Franck and Faure. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #204 - 26 June 2015)

Listener Guide #14 - "Leopold Wlach Plays Brahms": Duos and trios by Brahms are next, meant for the clarinet, and featuring Leopold Wlach. (Once Upon the Internet #43 - 12 Jan 2016)

Listener Guide #15 - "Trios élégiaques": Trios by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov written in memory of lost friends. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #147 - 14 Mar, 2014)

Listener Guide #16 - "Night Train - Oscar Peterson Trio": For your listening pleasure, I chose to program the 1962-63 Verve release Night Train, which is considered one of Peterson's most commercially successful recordings. (Vinyl's Revenge #13 - 26 Jan 2016)

Listener Guides #17 & 18 - "The Aeolian String Quartet Plays Haydn": Violinist Johann Tost led the second violins of Haydn's orchestra at Esterháza from 1783 until his departure for Paris in 1788. In Paris, Tost sold some of Haydn’s compositions, and Haydn in gratitude dedicated the Op. 64 set to Tost. (Vinyl's Revenge #4 - Dec 09 2014)

L/G #17 - Part 1
L/G #18 - Part 2

Listener Guide #19 - "Quartets": Quartets by Dvorak and Borodin meet works by Aldo Forte and Robert Schumann, all featuring different combinations of four instruments. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 222- 27 May 2016)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Octets & Nonets

No. 223 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast223

In recent weeks, our chamber music posts have looked at small groups – duets, trios, quartets and quintets. We even had a post a few Tuesdays back when we considered sextets.

The case of the two sextets by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg were interesting because these are sometimes performed by much larger complement of players - a string ensemble - where the standard string quartet 2-1-1 layout is multiplied several times.

This takes us to an interesting place – where does ensemble music stop being “chamber” music? There isn’t a straight-forward answer to that question, but suffice it to say that we rarely see chamber works that involve more than 10 players… So this partly explains this week’s focus on groups of eight (octets) and nine players (nonets), as these are probably the most muscular configurations we will find that “stop short” of being viewed as orchestral or ensemble play.

Of the four pieces programmed this week, the best known is probably Felix Mendelssohn's Octet for stings in E-flat major. This octet is really a double string quartet (2-1-1 times two). Mendelssohn instructed in the public score, "This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character."

Considered the first (and most ambitious) of his large mature works, it was composed as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz when the composer was 16. The scherzo, later scored for orchestra as a replacement for the minuet in the composer's First Symphony at its premiere, is believed to have been inspired by a section of Goethe's Faust entitled "Walpurgis Night's Dream." – that same section was scored as a ballet in Gounod’s famous opera.

Fragments of this movement recur in the finale, as a precursor to the "cyclic" technique employed by later 19th-century composers. The entire work is also notable for its extended use of counterpoint, with the finale, in particular, beginning with an eight-part fugato.

The remaining three pieces in the montage are set for wind groups. Stravinsky’s wind octet, completed in 1923, is scored for an unusual combination of woodwind and brass instruments: flute, clarinet in B and A, two bassoons, trumpet in C, trumpet in A, tenor trombone, and bass trombone.
Because of its dry wind sonorities, divertimento character, and open and self-conscious adoption of "classical" forms of the German tradition (sonata, variation, fugue), as well as the fact that the composer published an article asserting his formalist ideas about it shortly after the Octet's first performance, it has been generally regarded as the beginning of neoclassicism in Stravinsky's music.

The remaining works are Wind Nonets (Flute, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets (B), 2 Horns (low B, E), 2 Bassoons) and both are in the French tradition, composed in the late 19th century.

We already made an oblique reference to Charles Gounod, so let’s start with his petite symphonie , composed for the Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments à Vent, founded in 1879 by flautist, conductor and instructor Claude-Paul Taffanel. Gounod, as stated earlier, is best known for his great operas, but he left behind a substantial number of instrumental works, including this charming “symphony”.

Louis Théodore Gouvy was born into a French-speaking family in the village of Goffontaine, in the Sarre, a region on the France-Prussia border (now Saarbrücken-Schafbrücke, Germany). This somewhat unusual circumstance (not unlike Chopin, actually, who we can argue was as much French as he was Polish) makes him a man of two cultures, divided between France and Germany, from which he drew his inspiration, his characteristics and his force.

While to a certain extent he was known and recognized in his lifetime, he fell into obscurity following his death. His contemporary Hector Berlioz wrote in the Journal des Débats "[t]hat a musician of the importance of M. Gouvy is still not very well known in Paris, and that so many gnats bother the public with their tenacious buzzing, it is enough to confuse and inflame the naive spirits that still believe in the reason and the justice of our musical manners".
Gouvy, drawn toward pure instrumental music as opposed to opera, set himself the unenviable task of becoming a French symphonist. It was unenviable because the French, and especially the Parisians, throughout most of the 19th century were opera-mad and not particularly interested in pure instrumental music.

Chamber music comprises a large portion of Gouvy's work and accounts in particular for four sonatas in duet form, five trios, eleven quartets, seven quintets, an enormous piano repertoire — for two and four hands — and for two pianos, several scores for wind instrument ensembles, from which we selected his Suite Gauloise for wind nonet.

I think you will love this music too.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Amateur Night at Harvard

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This week, Once Upon the Internet returns after taking a break last month to listen to “professionals” playing at Boston’s Gardner Museum. We will stay in Boston, and indeed will take in another concert, but this one is of a different kind.

According to the University’s website, Harvard’s vast and varied music scene offers multiple opportunities for students in both the curricular and extracurricular realms. The Office for the Arts oversees and supports several professionally-led instrumental and choral ensembles and Jazz Bands. Students also lead a range of music groups and appreciation societies, from Early Music to a cappella, plus rock/R&B, hip-hop and electronica, as well as ensembles performing the music of ethnic cultures worldwide.

So we find ourselves today at Harvard University, and the venue for the recital is Vanderbilt Hall, the residence for Harvard Medical and Dental Schools, the Division of Medical Sciences and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. An odd choice for a concert you might say, especially since there are many fine recital halls on campus. But we have here an extracurricular recital, one organized noit by the Faculty of Music but by students from the Division of Medical Sciences.

What do we mean by extracurricular and why is that so important you may ask… Dare I say, it makes absolute sense that elite scholars partake in music, as there is such a synergy between music and academic achievement. Neuroscience suggests that brains may be primed to distinguish meaningful sensory information from noise. This ability seems to enhance other cognitive abilities such as learning, language, memory and neuroplasticity of various brain areas. 

Our performers are an ecclectic assemblage of musicians and scientists - pianist Irene Chen holds degrees in biochemistry and music, and has pursued a Master’s Degree in piano performance as well as studies in German! Violist Miriam Osterfield has a Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and is on faculty at the University of Texas Southwestern. and violinist Allegra Petti is a research fellow at the McDonnell Genome Institute. Cellist Jonathan Min (who I believe graduated in dentistry) wrote the liner notes for a CD that recorded the 2004 recital for posterity. 

Two works on the program are by Ravel and Dvořák. Although Ravel’s piano trio of 1914 tends to be overshadowed by his other major piece of chamber music (his string quartet in F major), it nonetheless has found its place in the piano trio repertoire, and represents Ravel’s mastery of technique and texture, as well as his skill at creating a truly French sound. Along with the Piano Quintet in A major, and the Dumky Piano Trio, Op. 90, Dvořák’s E-flat major piano quartet is considered to be one of his finest works of chamber music. Dvořák was a master at creating tension between the dramatic and the playful, at combining grandiose thematic material with a highly intimate sense of nostalgia. We can hear all of these relationships at their best in this second piano quartet. 

You may find better performances; these are not elite musicians, but what they may lack in refined technique they more than make up for with enthusiasm and dedication. I think this is worth taking in…

Happy listening

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Trio, en la mineur, pour piano, violon et violoncelle [MR 67]

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 - 1904)
Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87 [B 162]

Allegra Petti, violin
Jonathan Min, cello
Irene Chen, piano
Miriam Osterfield, viola (Dvořák)
Recorded in concert, Vanderbilt Hall, Harvard University
June 20, 2004