Rattle Heads to London

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Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment here. Kenneth Woods has some interesting thoughts about Simon Rattle and the culture of celebrity in classical music. In the 1980s and 90s, Rattle rose to international prominence as principal conductor of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony. He has been leading the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.

The anticipation of a new Music Director is an exciting time for any orchestra. It’s a time when it’s easy to sense new possibilities, renewal and growth, and an infusion of fresh artistic energy. An incoming Music Director’s honeymoon usually follows a long period of “courtship” as a guest conductor. Both the conductor and the orchestra have to make sure the chemistry is right.

As Sir Simon Rattle prepares to return to his English roots, let’s listen to a recording from his days in Birmingham. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal “pastoral romance for orchestra,” The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy plays the violin solo:

Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

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The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12

Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor

Brahms Piano QuintetA ferocious, restless energy characterizes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. It’s music which is constantly developing and evolving from the smallest motivic seed.

At first Brahms wrestled to find the right instrumentation. The music started out as a string quartet, developed into a sonata for two pianos and then, on the recommendation of Clara Schumann, found its true form as a marriage of piano and strings. This evolution is similar to the compositional process of the First Piano Concerto, which was originally intended to be a symphony. It’s almost as if the piece was telling Brahms what it wanted to be as he composed.

Brahms completed the Piano Quintet in 1864, when he was in his early 30sListen for complex rhythmic shifts-moments where you might lose track of the downbeat. Also, listen for the reference to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets in the opening of the last movement.

Here is a classic 1968 recording with pianist Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet:

  1. Allegro non troppo 00:00
  2. Andante, un poco Adagio 14:44
  3. Scherzo. Allegro – Trio 23:37
  4. Finale. Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo 31:51

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