Remembering Seymour Lipkin

pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)
pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)

American pianist and teacher Seymour Lipkin passed away on Monday. He was 88.

Born in Detroit, Lipkin studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and David Saperton. During the Second World War, while still a student at Curtis, he accompanied Jascha Heifetz in concerts for American troops stationed around the world. In 1948 Lipkin won the Rachmaninov Competition, launching a significant solo career. He was a longtime faculty member of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. In his youth, he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and George Szell as an apprentice at the Cleveland Orchestra.

Interviews suggest that Seymour Lipkin was the model of a well-rounded artist. As a teenager he was inspired by the music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (He would later serve as Curtis’ opera pianist). For students, he stressed the importance of listening to a variety of music and developing your own interpretation.

Seymour Lipkin was regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Beethoven. In 2004 he released the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the Newport Classics label. Unlike many artists, he was intimately involved in the editing of his recordings, with the goal of capturing the spontaneity and cohesiveness of a live performance. Here, he plays the stormy first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata:

In contrast to the opening movement, the second movement of the “Pathétique” moves to a serene new world:

Here is the Rondo:

Dona Nobis Pacem: Six Musical Invocations of Peace

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The phrase Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us Peace”) comes from the Agnus Dei section of the Roman Catholic mass. It’s a simple, yet eternally powerful, invocation which has come to life in countless musical settings, from the serene simplicity of the traditional canon to the melodic perfection of Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat MajorAt the end of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Massit emerges as a triumphant celebration. In the twentieth century, it becomes a joyfully exuberant dance in Leonard Bernstein’s Missa Brevis and a mysterious, meditative prayer in this 1996 setting by Estonian composer Peteris Vasks.

Here are six additional musical invocations of peace:

Bach’s Mass in B minor

J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor concludes with this powerful setting of Dona nobis pacem. Bach’s music transcends the quiet, meditative prayer we might expect. Instead, it’s a soaring, almost defiant musical statement. As it develops, reaching increasingly higher, we hear a single musical subject appear in one voice and then another. This persistent musical line seems to be communicating a message which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Dona nobis pacem appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. In the score Beethoven wrote the words, “Prayer for inner and outer peace.” In the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (written a year after the completion of Missa Solemnis), this is music which seems to be trying to wrap its arms around the universe. You’ll hear sudden, earth-shattering changes of direction and the occasional martial sounds of drums and bugles. This excerpt gives us a sense of Missa Solemnis’ vast, cathedral-like musical architecture; but as the work nears an end, it melts into something more intimate and contemplative. (Listen to the joyful, sparkling string and woodwind lines and the quietly contented passages which follow here).

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets begins with Mars, the Bringer of Wara demonic, mechanical march locked into the irregular meter of 5/4 time. But the movement which follows evokes the serene peace of Venus. Opening with a solo horn line, Venus, the Bringer of Peace draws us into its colorful, placid, almost static world. As the movement ends, a momentary hint of something dark and ominous gives way to sparkling bells and innocent woodwind voices.

Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata, Dona nobis pacem was written in 1936 as a new World War loomed on the horizon. Its text alternates between the traditional Roman Catholic Mass and other biblical excerpts and poems of Walt Whitman: Beat! Beat! Drums!, Reconciliation (below), and Dirge for Two Veterans. 

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again

and ever again, this soiled world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

At moments, Vaughan Williams’ music suggests the trumpet calls and drums of battle. A solemn, numb funeral dirge trudges on. Half way through, the words, “Dona nobis pacem” become an ear-splitting shriek of pain. But throughout the cantata, we also hear exuberant splashes of color and some of the most lushly beautiful music imaginable…the sonic equivalent of England’s “green and pleasant” countryside.

(Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem ends at the 33:30 mark, below).

Honegger’s Symphonie Liturgique

Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” can be heard as a wordless mass. Here is the final movement, which concludes with a reference to Dona nobis pacem. At moments, the music suggests the roaring steam of Honegger’s locomotive-inspired Pacific 231In its final moments, as earlier conflict fades, the music enters a colorful and mysterious new world, seeming to fade into eternity:

Fauré’s Requiem

And what better way to finish than with the sparkling, childlike innocence of In paradisum, the final movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem:

  • Find Robert Shaw’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gustav Holst’s The Planets at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Arthur Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem at iTunes, Amazon.

James Ehnes’ New Vivaldi Recording

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Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may be the most recorded piece ever written, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another great new addition to the catalogue. The newest contribution comes from Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes who has just released a Four Seasons disc with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the Onyx Classics label. It’s always fun to hear different approaches to these famous Vivaldi concertos, some using baroque instruments and performance practice. Here, you’ll hear a full-toned, modern approach to the music. The recording also features Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, as well as Leclair’s “Tambourin” Sonata, accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was the greatest French violinist of the eighteenth century, “the Corelli of France.” Listen to the rich array of tonal colors and the intimate conversation which takes place between the violin and piano in the third movement of the Leclair, Sarabanda: Largo:

Leclair’s Op. 9, No. 3 violin sonata gets its nickname from this fun, folk dance-inspired final movement:

Finally, just in time for winter, here is the icy chill of the first movement of “Winter” from The Four Seasons:

Hugh Sung Launches “A Musical Life” Podcasts

Hugh Sung: pianist, teacher and musical Renaissance man
Hugh Sung: pianist, teacher and musical Renaissance man

 

Korean-American pianist Hugh Sung can be described as a musical Renaissance man. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Sung has performed throughout the world, collaborating with soloists such as Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Julius Baker, longtime principal flutist with the New York Philharmonic. As a techie and entrepreneur, Hugh Sung was one of the first professional musicians to imagine performances utilizing digital music scores (beginning with Microsoft’s Tablet PC in 2001). In 2008, he co-founded AirTurn, a company that develops a host of cutting-edge tech gadgets for musicians, including wireless page turning pedals. He is the author of From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution. As a teacher, Sung, who served for 19 years on the Curtis faculty, has reached out to long distance students through Video Exchange Learning technology from ArtistWorks.

Now Hugh Sung is engaging with classical music enthusiasts in yet a new way. On Monday, he launched A Musical Life with Hugh Sung, a collection of weekly podcasts featuring fascinating interviews with renowned musiciansHe describes it as, “sharing stories about making music and the things that move our souls.”

A Musical Life has hit the ground running with an eclectic collection of offerings already in place. Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim opens up about his journey through the competitive world of classical music, from early disappointments and insecurities to finding ultimate joy and satisfaction in serving music. Sung does a two-part interview with legendary violinist Aaron Rosand, whom Sung first met as a student at Curtis and later joined as a collaborator. Rosand talks about the distinctive individuality of “golden age” violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, the role of the bow in tone production, the sound of his ex-Kochanski Guarneri del Gesù, his love of old jazz, and more. Other interviews include pianist Gary Graffman, Gaelic singers Isobel Ann and Calum Martin, and Jordan Rudess, a member of the progressive rock band, Dream Theater. In the first episode, A Lonely Song, Sung shares thoughts about the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.

A Musical Life is extraordinary, not only because of Hugh Sung’s musical background, but because of his talent as an interviewer. He is sincere and down to earth, asking all the right questions and allowing the discussion to unfold naturally. As a listener, you feel as if you’re sitting in a comfortable room with friends. As musical examples are discussed, we get to hear excerpts from the artists’ recordings. Enjoyable now, these interviews will live on as fascinating historical documents. It will be exciting to follow the podcasts at A Musical Life in the weeks ahead.

Hugh Sung and Aaron Rosand

Hugh Sung first met violinist Aaron Rosand as a student at the Curtis Institute. Later, Rosand and Sung collaborated on a series of recordings.

Here is excerpt from their 2007 recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas. (Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Joachim’s Romance in B-flat are also included on the disc). This is the first movement of Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in G:

Here is a beautiful and rarely-heard piece from Rosand and Sung’s 2011 recording featuring Romances for violin: Sibelius’ Romance, Op. 78, No. 2.

Sibelius’ Second: Beyond Finnish Nationalism

Jean Sibelius completed his Second Symphony in 1902 at a turbulent moment in Finnish history. Amid a surge of nationalism and renewed cultural unity, a growing movement called for Finnish independence from Russia. As Tsar Nicholas II sought to suppress Finnish language and culture, Sibelius’ music played an important role in the cultural reawakening of his homeland.  Finlandia, the majestic nationalist hymn written in 1899 as a covert protest against Russian censorship, emerged as a defacto second Finnish National Anthem. A few years earlier, the Karelia Suite (1893) painted a mythic sound portrait and drew upon rough, backwoodsy Finnish folk elements. The same year, The Swan of Tuonela was inspired by the Kalevala, a collection of nineteenth century poetry which drew upon Finnish mythology. (The Swan of Tuonela was revised two years later and included in the Lemminkäinen Suite). Long dominated by Russia and Sweden, Finland would gain independence in 1917.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Some listeners have heard echoes of Finland’s struggle for independence in the Second Symphony. In 1902 the conductor Robert Kajanus, who championed Sibelius’ music and made the first recording of the Second Symphony in 1930 with the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote:

The effect of the andante is that of the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun (…) [The scherzo] depicts hurried preparation (…) [The finale] culminates in a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.

In 1998 conductor Osmo Vänskä suggested a similar, if more open-ended programmatic reading:

The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual. This is what makes it so touching.

But it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Sibelius had none of this in mind when he was writing the Second Symphony. Despite the powerful nationalistic undertones of his smaller programmatic works, he seems to have approached the symphony as “pure music.” In his famous 1907 meeting with Gustav Mahler (in which Mahler declared, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”), Sibelius seemed to be interested in the pure, formal aspects of the symphony. During their philosophical discussion, Sibelius told Mahler that he

admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs…If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances.

We hear this sense of logical, organic development in the Second Symphony. It’s almost as if the invisible, creative powers of nature shaped and developed the work through the composer’s hand. The opening of the first movement emerges suddenly, even abruptly, out of silence. The first strong beats are literally silent rests, and the opening motive, set in 6/4 time, feels like a long upbeat leading to more silence. This ascending three note motive, first heard in the strings, is the seed from which the entire symphony grows.  A few moments later, the woodwinds add the next layer of development: a buoyant, dancing countermelody. Quiet pizzicati lead into an exhilarating and terrifying accelerando. Then, listen to the sustained woodwind note which rises out of the string texture here. This single tone (a half step higher) becomes the thread which leads into the quietly shivering passage which follows.

That ascending motive in the opening is imprinted on the DNA of the entire symphony. It comes back slightly differently in the second movement, becomes a swirl of energy in the third movement, returns in the bridge to the final movement, and then becomes a triumphant proclamation in the opening of the final movement, the Symphony’s climax.

But let’s return to the silence of the opening. Sibelius was a composer who lifted music out of silence. He required hours of uninterrupted silence to work. In the final years of his life, he descended into a permanent creative silence, unable to compose and eventually destroying sketches of a stillborn Eighth Symphony. The Second Symphony is filled with unsettling moments which abruptly trail off into silence. It’s as if the music is unable to shake off the reality of its silent opening beats. One of these moments comes in the Nordic gloom of the second movement where, just as we seem to be reaching a climax, a brooding brass choral is interrupted by a series of pauses. When this music returns later in the movement, the silence is filled with strangely static woodwind chords. A moment later, one of the movement’s longest pauses delivers us into a hushed new sonic world. Barely emerging from the silence, strings are joined by a glassy, meandering woodwind line.

For all of its dramatic motion towards the climax of the final movement, Sibelius’ Second often seems to struggle with resolution. There are moments where the music can’t quite sum up what it’s trying to say, as if the titanic forces unleashed are too big to wrap your arms around fully (this passage from the second movement, for example). The first and second movements culminate in chords which seem slightly brusk, coming and going too soon. Even in the final two minutes of the symphony, there’s a sense of unresolved energy, as the music reaches increasingly higher, striving for an ultimate, unattainable goal.

Recommended Recordings

  • Find Osmo Vänskä 1997 recording (featured above) with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Vänskä is re-recording the Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. Find the new recording, released in 2012 at iTunes, Amazon.
  • George Szell’s 1970 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. This was his last recording with the orchestra.
  • Leonard Bernstein’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.
  • Gustavo Dudamel’s performance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Musical Humidity: Michael Torke’s “Tahiti”

American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)
American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961)

 

When you listen to the music of the most time-tested, enduring composers, it’s easy to get a sense of effortless perfection, as if the music couldn’t be any other way. It’s impossible to know if Michael Torke, or any other living composer, will one day fall into the “enduring” category. But I often sense this quality in Torke’s music. It speaks with sublime honesty. A strange combination of elements emerge in many of Torke’s pieces: glossy, “even-better-than-the-real-thing” references to the past alongside hints of pop music and endearingly naive melodies.

We hear many of these elements in Tahiti, an eight-movement work written in 2009 and recorded by conductor Clark Rundell and Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music ensemble of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. According to Torke, Tahiti‘s descriptive movement titles are not intended to paint an image, but to suggest “the idea of humidity: they attempt to capture the perfume of leisure time in a very warm and sunny, beautiful place. In the program notes at Torke’s website, he also quotes this passage from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Here is the seventh moment of Tahiti, Huahine: under the moonlight. At moments (like the woodwind-mallot voice at 0:34), the music seems reminiscent of Torke’s 2002 tone poem, An American Abroad. Part of the recording’s unique flavor is the result of decisions made in the recording studio. Torke wanted it to have the glossy, atmospheric sheen of a late 1960s-early ’70s Burt Bacharach track:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Explore more of Michael Torke’s music in the Listeners’ Club archive.

Phrygian Gates: John Adams, Opus One

(Photo/Eric Risberg)
(Photo by Eric Risberg)

 

John Adams has described Phrygian Gates and its shorter “companion” piece China Gates (written between 1977 and 1978) as his “Opus 1.” Built on an unrelenting sense of pulse and unfolding gradually, both pieces were influenced by the Minimalism of Terry Riley (In C), Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Process (like phasing and gradually building musical patterns with the addition of one note at a time) lies at the heart of early Minimalism. Phrygian Gates and China Gates may be Adams’ most process-oriented works, but there’s also a sense of restlessness. John Adams was once described as “a Minimalist bored with Minimalism.” Even in these first mature works, written around the time Adams turned 30, unexpected disruption of process foreshadows Adams’ later music.

At his blog, Earbox, John Adams describes Phrygian Gates:

Phrygian Gates is a 22-minute tour of half of the cycle of keys, modulating by the circle of fifths rather than stepwise à la Well-Tempered Clavier. The structure is in the form of a modulating square wave with one state in the Lydian mode and the other in the Phrygian mode. As the piece progresses the amount of time spent in the Lydian gradually shortens while that given over to the Phrygian lengthens. Hence the very first section, on A Lydian, is the longest in the piece and is followed by a very short passage on A Phrygian. In the next pair (E Lydian and Phrygian) the Lydian section is slightly shorter while its Phrygian mate is proportionally longer, and so on until the tables are turned. Then follows a coda in which the modes are rapidly mixed, one after the other. “Gates,” a term borrowed from electronics, are the moments when the modes abruptly and without warning shift. There is “mode” in this music, but there is no “modulation”.

The Phrygian and Lydian modes, commonly used in jazz, with roots back to ancient Greece, have a distinctly different sound and “feel” from major and minor scales. (Listen to the sound of the Phrygian and Lydian modes). These scales seem to float in midair because they don’t have the same sense of pull from dominant to tonic we hear in tonal music. In an interview with Edward Strickland, John Adams described the qualities of these modes and their relationship in the music:

I immediately imagined a piece in which modes would oscillate-two radically different church modes, the Phrygian, which is very nervous and unstable, since it starts on the third degree and so opens with a half step, and the Lydian which begins on the fourth degree and so has a raised fourth-very stable and yet ecstatic, used in a lot of New Age music, which is supposed to induce bliss and ecstasy. 

Phrygian Gates is constantly developing and teeming with energy. At the same time, it forces us to slow down and celebrate the moment. Listen to the way the emphasis shifts within its eternal pulse. Here is Ralph van Raat’s recording:

China Gates was written during Northern California’s rainy season, perhaps suggesting the gentle, continuous patter of rain hitting a rooftop. According to Adams, the piece’s structure forms an “almost perfect palindrome,” first alternating between Mixolydian and Aeolian modes, culminating with a similar alternation between Lydian and Locrian modes, and using all four in the middle.

Here is Emanuele Arciuli’s recording:

  • Find Ralph van Raat’s recording of Phrygian Gates at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Emanuele Arciuli’s recording of China Gates at iTunes, Amazon.

Béatrice et Bénédict: Berlioz’s Neglected Comedy

Hector_Berlioz,_Béatrice_et_Bénédict_score_title_page_-_RestorationBéatrice et Bénédict, Hector Berlioz’s two act opéra comique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, isn’t exactly a staple of the modern opera repertoire. It gets occasional performances, but is commonly overshadowed by more famous Shakespeare-based operas: Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But Béatrice et Bénédict was a smash hit when it premiered at the the Theater der Stadt in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862. Berlioz referred to the opera as “A caprice written with the point of a needle.” Its sparkling score comes to life with a uniquely vivacious energy. At the same time, the forward motion of the plot occasionally gives way to atmospheric moments of serene, otherworldly beauty. Berlioz biographer David Cairns writes, “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”

The opera’s libretto, written by Berlioz, simplifies Shakespeare’s play, eliminating subplots in order to emphasize the relationship between the title characters. As the first act opens, the citizens of the Sicilian town of Messina have gathered to welcome home the victorious army of Don Pedro of Aragon, following a successful battle campaign against the Moors. Héro eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé, Claudio. Meanwhile, Béatrice greets the returning Bénédict in a strikingly different way. The two take great pleasure in trading insults, masking their mutual attraction. In the opening of Berlioz’s Overture we can hear the couple playfully hurtling verbal barbs at one another. It’s a musical cat and mouse game which is constantly throwing us witty curve balls. We hear this “needling” opening motive throughout the overture, sometimes as teasing and taunting background interjections (listen around 4:12 and 6:13). The music which follows suggests the farcical trickery of the plot, which includes “accidentally” overheard conversations. But we also get a sense of the supernatural lurking underneath…the mystery and eternal beauty of a still summer night and a hint of Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturne duet which concludes the first act.

Here is Colin Davis’ 2005 recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle:

Kathleen Battle battle sings Je vais le voir, Héro’s quietly majestic aria from the opening of the first act. Héro awaits the return of Claudio, their marriage and their trouble-free life ahead:

Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin sing Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturnal duet of Héro and Ursule at the end of the first act. The duet embodies a “French sound” which seems to subtly anticipate everything from Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakme (1883) to Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, Op. 50 (1887).

Human follies evaporate as Héro and Ursule comment on the serene, moonlit night, the faint hum of insects in a nearby meadow, and the gentle sound of wind rustling through the trees. From the brief opening recitative, which strangely suggests the vocal purity of baroque opera, Berlioz’ orchestration draws us into the stillness of the night. As the curtain falls on Act 1, the music fades into the night…

  • Find Colin Davis’ recording of the Béatrice et Bénédict Overture with the Dresden Staatskapelle at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Kathleen Battle’s recording, French Opera Arias at iTunes, Amazon
  • The third clip, featuring Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin comes from a recording of the entire opera with John Nelson conducting Opéra de Lyon. Find at Amazon.