Gidon Kremer’s Changing Approach to Solo Bach

Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer
Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer

 

It’s some of the most deeply profound and perfect music ever written, and it employs the most economical means imaginable. J.S. Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, completed in 1720 and neglected until almost a century later, are a cornerstone of the violin repertoire. They’re studied by every serious violin student. Yet, as you play solo Bach, you quickly get the sense that it takes a lifetime to fully grasp the endless layers of expression and meaning in this “Bible of music.” In fact, first rank soloists like Joshua Bell have said publicly that they don’t feel ready to record this music.

Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer first released the complete Sonatas and Partitas in 1980 on the Phillips label. That recording showcases Kramer’s trademark rebellious and sometimes angular individuality. He foregoes a straightforwardly “singing” tone, instead drawing a rich array of expressive voices from his instrument. At times, his sound is raspy and even harsh, a reminder that “beauty” is only one side of expression. A buoyant sense of baroque dance remains.

Kremer returned to solo Bach in 2001 with a recording on the ECM label (released in 2005). You can compare his approach to the B minor Partita in 1980 to the performance below. It’s interesting to hear the way he brings out contrasting voices. In the opening Allemanda, a dramatic conversation unfolds. Occasionally, one voice seems to impatiently interrupt another. In the First Partita, each movement is followed by a Double, a variation which develops the preceding movement’s theme at twice the speed. In the opening movement of the D minor Partita (beginning at 27:32), Kremer draws distinction between strong beats and weaker beats, allowing certain notes to pop out of the texture. The mighty Ciaccona, which concludes the D minor Partita, begins at 41:50. The E major Partita begins at 56:00.

Here is Gidon Kremer performing the complete Partitas, during the 2001 recording session. Listen and share your thoughts in the thread below.

For German speakers, this documentary offers an inside look at Gidon Kramer’s 2001 recording session.

I tried to forget all the other interpretations, to concentrate on the musical problems and also to be loyal to the score and to what is behind it. The spiritual aspect is in effect more important than the violinistic challenges. I didn’t think about succeeding, just unleashing my interpretation…You are not supposed to pronounced God’s name, as it is written in the scriptures, and for me Bach is God. It is obvious that his music is written by someone who came from another planet, but at the same time he is a human being — let’s not forget that he had 23 children! He saw his work as service, and through it he was serving something even greater. My challenge was to treat Bach like a contemporary composer. How it will be judged is not my concern.

-Gidon Kremer

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

Recomposing Vivaldi’s “Winter”

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As we await today’s meteorological prediction from the groundhog, let’s enjoy the icy sonic chill of “Winter” from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s collection of violin concertos composed around 1720. This piece can sound radically different from one performance to another, depending on choices of tempi and style. The concerto’s programatic elements remain: the orchestra’s frigid opening ponticello (a raspy sound created by playing as close to the bridge as possible), flying spiccato bowing suggesting pellets of frozen precipitation hitting a hard surface. The final movement drifts off into the solitude of a bleak, desolate winter landscape.

Here is Gidon Kremer’s 1981 performance with the English Chamber Orchestra:

Vivaldi Remixed

In Baroque performances, ornamentation added an element of spontaneity. The notes on the page sometimes became a blueprint for improvisation, similar to chord progressions for a jazz musician. German-born British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) has pushed this tradition even further with his Recomposed Four Seasons (2012). Vivaldi’s music becomes the raw material for a new piece rooted in the looping repetition of minimalism and electronic dance music. Fragments of the original composition emerge and find new lives of their own. It’s a musical conversation spanning three hundred years. Listen to the complete work here. Pay attention to the way the music slowly and gradually develops. If you feel inspired, share your thoughts about the music in the thread below.

Here is Daniel Hope with the Orchestra L’arte del Mondo in 2013:

As a bonus, here is Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” and Written on the Sky from Blue Notebooks (2004). Also listen to Luminous from the soundtrack of the 2011 film Perfect Sense (The Last Word) and Rainlightcomposed for Random International’s Rain Room, a 2012 art instillation at London’s Barbican Centre.

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York (now Sony Building)
Philip Johnson’s 647-foot-tall AT&T Building in New York (now the Sony Tower)

In 1984, a bold, new skyscraper emerged on the Manhattan skyline, which captured everyone’s attention and became the subject of intense controversy. The Chippendale-inspired broken pediment crown of architect Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building shocked the architectural establishment because it so profoundly violated the ruling aesthetic of the day. This bizarre new icon seemed to be cheerfully thumbing its nose at the solemn, modernist glass boxes which surrounded it. Postmodernism was born.

Modernism, with its mantras of “less is more” and “form follows function,” was about pure, abstract geometric form. Its clean lines were stripped of ornamentation, historical reference or symbolism. It offered a standardized, mechanized, futuristic, utopian vision. The serene beauty of the modernist, glass curtain wall-clad office building was best exemplified by post-war structures such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House.

By contrast, postmodern architecture embraced symbolism and drew upon historical references. Postmodern buildings became signifiers. At their best, the whimsical new icons enlivened skylines and engaged the imagination. At their worst, they became monolithic corporate billboards.

In the early days of the skyscraper, there were plenty of buildings which invoked history. For example, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building suggested a Gothic cathedral. But these buildings often drew upon past styles as a way of avoiding what were, at that time, unresolved aesthetic challenges of building on such a huge scale. The postmodernism of the 1980s and 90s, championed by architects such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Johnson, played with historical reference, scale and symbolism to create signifiers. Philip Johnson’s turreted PPG Place says “I’m the Houses of Parliament” and Republic Bank Center in Houston says, “I’m a Dutch canal house.” As glossy symbols, these buildings start to seem even better than the real thing, in the same way an advertisement romanticizes a product.

Interestingly, as postmodernism was sweeping architecture in the late twentieth century, similar trends were surfacing in music. Can you hear the postmodern aesthetic in the examples below?

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

At times, Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977) by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) becomes “more Vivaldi than Vivaldi” (listen to the Toccata and the Rondo movements). In this piece, the Baroque Concerto Grosso functions as a signifier in a dark and terrifying drama. Vivaldi-like sequences descend slightly too far and imitation between voices grows into an out of control caricature. Mozart, Beethoven, Tango music and a quote of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (15:57) surface and disappear amid musical breakdown. Hints of Shostakovich emerge in the opening of the Recitativo.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 is filled with voices of lament. Slowly awakening in the first movement, they sometimes shriek out in pain and other times sink into resignation. In the last movement, we hear distant echoes of the Toccata (27:22).

Here is violinist Gidon Kremer’s 1988 recording:

  1. Preludio. Andante (0:00)
  2. Toccata. Allegro (5:01)
  3. Recitativo. Lento (9:27)
  4. Cadenza. [without tempo indication] (16:22)
  5. Rondo. Agitato (18:54)
  6. Postludio. Andante – Allegro – Andante (26:00)

John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music

Grand Pianola Music (1982) started with a dream. John Adams writes:

As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.

The majority of Grand Pianola Music is firmly rooted in minimalism. Its opening pulse suddenly emerges, as if the volume has been turned up on something which has always been present. There’s a sense of time moving through the music as it slowly develops, forcing us to become one with the moment. The circular nature of minimalism flows from the isolation and repetition of single chords or progressions. In Four Organs (1970), Steve Reich sustains and elongates a dominant eleventh chord for fifteen minutes. As voices join and drop out we get a changing, kaleidoscopic view of the chord. We anticipate a resolution, but the chord remains suspended in air.

But listen to what happens with the similar, prolonged dominant harmony in the opening of the final movement of Grand Pianola Music (23:01). In a sudden and unexpected move, the chord resolves. The abstract purity of minimalism is shattered and the music takes on postmodern meaning. A melody emerges which suggests Lisztian bravado, Beethoven, and gospel music all blended together. This is the moment where Adams finds the musical equivalent of the AT&T Building’s outrageous Chippendale top. It’s a theme which seems brash and out of place, like the fanciful, arbitrary historical references of a Johnson office tower. It comes out of nowhere, but it’s a voice which demands to be heard.

Grand Pianola Music was so shocking in 1982 that the first performance was met with boos. Adams writes,

True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came at the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia Princeton school….Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking.

  1. Part 1A (fast) (0:00)
  2. Part 1B (slow)
  3. “On the Dominant Divide” (fast) (23:01)

Michael Torke’s Ash

In the late 1980s, Michael Torke wrote a series of pieces with titles relating to color. Torke experiences a neurological blurring of the senses, known as synesthesia, in which musical keys and sounds evoke involuntary associations with color.

If you’ve ever heard music in a dream, Ash (1988) may remind you of that experience. This piece is made up of fleeting moments where you might swear you’re listening to the classical orchestration and counterpoint of Beethoven. This is not real Beethoven but a glossy representation of Beethoven. Even “better” than the real thing.

Oblivion

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Take a moment and listen to this hauntingly atmospheric music by twentieth century Argentine tango composer, Astor Piazzolla. Oblivion was written in 1982 and used in the soundtrack of Mario Bellocchio’s film, Enricho IV. There are many versions of this piece for different combinations of instruments. This performance features Latvian violinist, Gidon Kremer and comes from his CD, Hommage a Piazzolla.

Like all great music, Oblivion conjures up a complex mix of emotions which cannot be put into words. What feelings does this piece evoke for you? As you listen, pay attention not only to the melody, but to the underlying harmony and rhythm in the bass and piano.

For a contrast to Kremer’s performance, listen to this orchestral version played by the Montreal Symphony and Charles Dutoit. It’s an excerpt from a CD entitled Tangazo. If one version speaks to you more than another I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. For more music by Piazzolla, visit my post featuring The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

Cellist, Yo Yo Ma has some interesting thoughts on Piazzolla’s music and the tango tradition in Argentina:

[quote]Tango is not just about dancing. It is a music of deep undercurrents. Because of what Argentina went through as a country, tango has become the soul of Argentina. Music is always one way people can speak when they aren’t allowed to express themselves otherwise. And Piazzolla’s tangos have the great strength of true voice…. Piazzolla’s music is endlessly passionate—full of yearning—and at the same time tremendously contemporary. There’s a quote to the effect that Piazzolla is the Ellington of Argentina, and in a way it’s true. He actually took the tango to another level by inhabiting his music. The music grew in him, and he adeptly incorporated the influences of his surroundings—whether from New York, Paris, or Buenos Aires. During the almost forty years he worked on his music, Astor Piazzolla tried many different variations—even tried an electronic ensemble! Because of this experimentation, and also his ingenuity, focus, and hard work, his music has many levels of expression and a tremendous depth. His is a truly successful synthesis of the tango and the contemporary.[/quote]

Here is an excerpt from Yo Yo Ma’s recording called, Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla.

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

My last post featured two contrasting performances of the Winter and Spring concertos from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Now, here is music written around 1965 by the great Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla.

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires was originally written for Piazzolla’s quintet (bandoneon, piano, violin, electric guitar and electric base).  Violinist Gidon Kremer commissioned the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov to create this version for solo violin and string orchestra.

You might hear echoes of Vivaldi, as well as moments where the strings sound more like percussion instruments.  These effects are created by tapping the instruments, hitting the strings with the wood of the bow and creating scratchy sounds by playing on the wrong side of the bridge.

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires…Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) /arr. Desyatnikov

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Violinist Gidon Kremer performs Winter and Spring with Kremerata Baltica: