Remembering Joseph Silverstein

Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)
Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)

 

Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.

Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.

In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”

In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,

Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.

Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.

Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:

Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake

Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:

Barber Violin Concerto

Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:

J.S. Bach Partita No. 3

Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:

Debussy Sonata

Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.

  • Find Joseph Silverstein’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Excerpts from a violin masterclass with Silverstein
  • Frank Almond’s tribute

Brahms Recordings, Old and New

Brahms recordingLast year, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto. On March 31, Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang followed up with a new recording of the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms. Here is an excerpt of Kavakos playing the stormy Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108.

This CD is another exciting addition to an already vast collection of classic and recent recordings of this music, including performances by Stefan Jackiw, Anne-Sophie MutterJosef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux. I also highly recommend a lesser- known gem: the 1996 recording of Oleh Krysa and Tatiana Tchekina.

The “Rain” Sonata

Let’s listen to Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78, played by Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Brahms wrote this sonata for a friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who also received the Violin Concerto dedication. It was composed in the southern Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summers of 1878 and 1879. The last movement grew out of Brahms’s earlier song, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) from 8 Lieder and Songs, Op. 59. Take a moment and listen to the song and read the text. Do the repeated notes in the piano suggest gently falling raindrops?

In an earlier post we heard how skillfully Brahms develops small and seemingly insignificant musical cells. There is a similar sense of development as this sonata unfolds. Listen for common motives and themes which run throughout the three movements, unifying the piece. The first movement is in 6/4 time. Pay attention to the way the music is flowing. Does Brahms occasionally play rhythmic games which make you lose track of the downbeat?

  1. 00:00 Vivace ma non troppo
  2. 10:45 Adagio
  3. 18:47 Allegro molto moderato

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The second theme of the Adagio is a solemn funeral march (12:44). Consider how this theme contrasts with what came before. One of my favorite moments is when the theme suddenly slips into major when it returns at 16:44.

In the opening of the final movement, notice the dotted rhythm motive from the first movement, first repeated in the bass and then in the higher voices of the piano. Following the quiet agitation of the final movement, were you expecting such a peaceful conclusion in the coda (25:23)?

Now it’s your turn…

In the Listeners’ Club, your voice is important. In the thread below, tell us what you heard in the music. Which recording of the Brahms sonatas is your favorite and why?

Grumiaux’s Cosmic Bach

NASA included a "Golden Record" on the Voyager interstellar mission.
NASA included a “Golden Record” on the Voyager interstellar mission.

When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager spacecraft in 1977, it included a Golden Record featuring a sampling of music from Earth. One of the recording’s excerpts is J.S. Bach’s Gavotte en rondeaux from Partita No. 3 in E Major, performed by legendary Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). Regarding the record, astronomer Carl Sagan said:

[quote]The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.[/quote]

Voyager 1 continues to drift into the vast cosmic expanse. Yesterday it was 127.19 AU (1.903×1010 km) from Earth. In 40,000 years it will be within 1.6 lightyears of Gliese 445, a star in the constellation Camelopardalis, which flickers faintly in our northern sky.

Following up on last Friday’s post, The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiauxlet’s listen to a few of Grumiaux’s exquisite Bach recordings.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Partita No. 3 in E Major[/typography]

We’ll start off with the Preludio and Gavotte en rondeaux from the E Major Partita. A Partita is an instrumental suite of Baroque dances. While some violinists take the Preludio at breakneck speed, Grumiaux’s noble and slightly slower interpretation allows every note to speak.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto in A minor[/typography]

Here is the complete Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. Notice the sense of a heartbeat in the ostinato bass in the second movement. The final movement is a gigue:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto for Two Violins[/typography]

Herman Krebbers plays the second violin part in this 1978 recording with Les Solistes Romands and conductor Arpad Gerecz:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord[/typography]

Here Grumiaux joins Christianne Jaccotte for Bach’s six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord:

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The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiaux

legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux
legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux

Elegance, good taste and a beautiful, bell-like singing tone were all characteristics of Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). In contrast to today’s relatively homogenized violin playing, Grumiaux exhibits a distinctly French style. Listening to Grumiaux, I’m also struck by the musical honesty and lack of fussiness in his playing. His musical phrases speak with a purity and simplicity which is hard to come by today.

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote:

[quote]Over the years, Grumiaux’s playing underwent a marked development. He began as an intellectually cool player, with a tone of limited volume and restrained vibrato. As he grew in years and maturity, his interpretations acquired more sensuous warmth and fire without losing any of the former noble qualities. Perhaps it is the nobility and uncompromising musicianship that keeps Grumiaux’s career within certain limits, as if marked “for connoisseurs only.”[/quote]

Let’s become “connoisseurs” and listen to a few great old recordings by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine better Mozart than this:

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Here are the second and third movements.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Faure and Franck Sonatas[/typography]

Here is a clip of Gabriel Fauré’s two violin sonatas (A major and E minor) as well as the César Franck sonata (beginning at 44:45):

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Beethoven Minuet in G[/typography]

Beethoven’s Minuet in G is included in Book 2 of Suzuki’s violin repertoire. I was surprised to come across this performance by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sicilienne[/typography]

This short piece has been attributed to Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), an Austrian composer and pianist. Mozart is thought to have written his Piano Concerto No. 18 for her. Violinist Samuel Dushkin, who “discovered” and arranged this beautiful piece, is now believed to have written it:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini’s I Palpiti[/typography]

Let’s finish up with the virtuoso fireworks of Niccolò Paganini. Before the fireworks start, you’ll hear a singing melody, which might remind you of Italian Bel canto opera:

Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]

To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?

In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.

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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]

-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770 

Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.

Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]

Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:

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