Beethoven’s Ghost

The manuscript of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio
The manuscript of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio

When you hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, you’ll immediately understand why this piece earned the nickname, the “Ghost” Trio. It’s some of the most eerie, strange and terrifying music ever written. It constantly keeps you off guard, taking sudden and unexpected turns, like a shadowy apparition which is there one minute and gone the next. As the second movement unfolds, it may play tricks with your perception of time.

Beethoven’s ability to pack a universe of drama and color into three instruments is amazing. There are moments which seem strikingly symphonic (he had just finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). At times, even tonality seems to be on the verge of slipping away (the second movement’s prolonged trills in the low depths of the piano which confuse the ear).

Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” It’s easy to get a similar sense with this trio. The outer movements are emotionally far removed from the haunting Largo. There are moments of giddy joy, love and gratitude. All of these contrasting emotions are a great reminder that this music expresses much more than the frustrations and torment of a man who was slowly losing his hearing. Beethoven’s music transcended his life, tapping into something much deeper and more universal. In that respect he “heard” things no one else could.

Beethoven wrote the two Op. 70 Trios in Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808. Around this time he was contemplating an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The opera remained unwritten, but its ghosts seem to have found their way into Op. 70, No. 1.

Here are Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in concert in Paris in 1992:

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo assai ed espressivo (6:02)
  3. Presto (17:09)

Hiro Kurosaki Plays Handel

Hiro Kurosaki's recording of Handel SonatasYou may be familiar with classic recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonatas by Isaac SternNathan MilsteinHenryk Szeryng and Szymon Goldberg. For the most part, they’re all Romantic performances, emphasizing a large, singing tone and lots of vibrato. For a slightly different take, add to the list an excellent 2003 Baroque recording by violinist Hiro Kurosaki and harpsichordist William Christie.

No one knows if Handel actually wrote all seven of the sonatas on this disk. A few are suspected to be the work of other composers, now long forgotten. The D-major sonata (HWV 371), one of Handel’s last works, and youthful G-major sonata (HWV 358) are authentic. Dr. Suzuki included the F major and D major sonatas in Book 6 and the A major sonata in Book 7.

Born in Japan, Hiro Kurosaki now lives in Austria and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He plays a 1690 Giovanni Battista Rogeri violin on this recording, an instrument made during Handel’s lifetime. Kurosaki and Christie claim that their interpretation was influenced by Handel’s opera writing. Listen to this excerpt from the 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare, for a comparison.

Here is Sonata No. 4 in D major:

Also listen to the F major and G major sonatas.

Remembering Abram Shtern

Abram Shtern (1919-2014)
Abram Shtern (1919-2014)

Legendary Ukrainian violinist and teacher Abram Shtern passed away last week at the age of 96. Shtern was concertmaster and professor in Kiev before emigrating to the United States in 1990 and settling in Los Angeles. He represented one of the last direct links to the tradition of Leopold Auer, the teacher of Heifetz, Milstein and others.

For much of his career, Shtern stayed out of the spotlight, but he was deeply respected within the violin world. Isaac Stern said:

[quote]Oh, how he played! This man never leaves behind what the music means and such enthusiasm – he not only loves music but also he lives FOR music! He is an incredible master-musician.[/quote]

Here is a 1971 recording of Abram Shtern playing the solo from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake:

These informal clips give a sense of Shtern’s rich, singing tone and extraordinary technique. Notice his masterful, seamless bow control. This video, from Shtern’s 75th birthday, highlights his roots in Klezmer fiddling. Here is a profile featuring more background on Abram Shtern’s life.

Carmen Fantasies

CarmenGeorges Bizet’s Carmen remains one of opera’s most popular hits, partly because of its rich and exotic melodies. These melodies were the inspiration for Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, written in 1883.

In the nineteenth century, composers commonly used opera melodies as a springboard for new virtuoso showpieces. At the time, arias from Carmen and other operas would have fallen into the category of “popular music.” Franz Liszt wrote a  Fantasia on two themes from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Grande Paraphrase de Concert sur le Rigoletto de Verdi among other opera-inspired pieces. Joshua Bell’s 2001 West Side Story Suite continues this tradition.

Here is Sarah Chang performing Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Waxman’s Carmen[/typography]

Franz Waxman offered another take on Carmen in his score for the 1946 film Humoresque. Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie was originally written for Jascha Heifetz, but the score was recorded by a young Isaac Stern. Here is the film’s original trailer. The recordings by Heifetz and Stern are both worth hearing:

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Stern Recording of BeethovenBeethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 set the standard for all violin concertos which followed, but you might not have known it at the first performance on December 23, 1806. According to legend Beethoven finished writing the solo part so late that Franz Clements, the violinist who gave the premier, was forced to sight read part of the concerto in the performance. In addition, Clements may have performed one of his own pieces in between movements, playing on one string with the violin held upside down. These antics suggest that the concert experience in Beethoven’s time may have been slightly less reverential than it is today. Many listeners in 1806 may have been overwhelmed by the scale and power of Beethoven’s shocking new music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Stern/Bernstein Recording[/typography]

Let’s listen to Isaac Stern’s great 1959 recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Pay attention to the way the orchestra and the solo violin interact. This dialogue between tutti (everyone) and solo is what gives a concerto its drama. In this concerto, Beethoven often gives the violin embellishing scale and arpeggio lines which float above the melody in the orchestra. The first movement grows out of five quiet timpani notes. Listen to the way these five notes come back in different forms throughout the movement.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (23:44)
  3. Rondo (34:36)

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The first movement is full of surprises. The five notes in the timpani provide a motivic seed, ripe for growth and development. The violins pick up this motive (0:25) but imitate it with a completely “wrong” note. Throughout the movement, Beethoven keeps us off guard, quickly alternating between moods. Just when we get lulled into lyrical complacency, we get a ferocious surprise (listen between 0:57 and 1:41). Beethoven musically provides “two sides of the same coin,” or in this case two sides of the same melody. At 1:40 the melody is sunny, in the major. Notice the way it changes to something slightly darker and more unsettling when it shifts into minor (1:55).

In the mysterious passage following 7:33 the “wrong note” is further developed. Pay attention to the way this moment of quiet musical confusion works itself out. In the tutti section which follows (8:27-10:32), the motive, which started out as five soft timpani notes in the opening, is now transformed into insistent, repeated fortissimo octaves dominated by the trumpets and horns.

Traditionally, the cadenza appears at the end of the first movement of a concerto (19:23). This is the moment when the orchestra drops out and the violinist improvises on the motives of the movement, showing off great technical skill. Later, it became common for performers to use established cadenzas. In this recording Stern plays a cadenza written by the legendary early twentieth century violinist, Fritz Kreisler.

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Here is an excellent 1989 live concert performance by violinist Kyung Wha Chung and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Klauss Tennstedt:

In this clip Itzhak Perlman talks about his experience playing the concerto and what makes it so difficult:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Schnittke’s Cadenzas[/typography]

Twentieth century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto which offer a uniquely modern perspective. Interestingly, Schnittke not only uses the motives of the piece, but includes quotes from the Brahms, Shostakovich (First), and Alban Berg violin concertos. Schnittke also incorporates the timpani into the cadenza. Here is Gidon Kremer playing the cadenzas to the First Movement:

Schnittke’s cadenza for the third movement brings back motives from the first movement:

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

Share your thoughts on this remarkable piece in the thread below. What was your experience listening to the cadenzas by Schnittke? Do they enrich the piece or do they seem jarringly out of place? Do you have a personal favorite recording of the Beethoven Concerto?

A Question of Timing

images-3Timing is an important element in music as well as comedy. A great comedian knows how to build up to the punch line of a joke . Similarly, great composers have an intuitive understanding of proportion in music. They know how long to repeat an idea before moving on. They allow the music to unfold organically in a way that seems “right”, as if the piece is composing itself.

As musicians, we also have to consider timing. How are the notes working together to create a phrase, or musical sentence? How long should a note be stretched? Should the music sit back on the beat or have a sense of being right on top of the beat? How do we group notes to create a sense of flow? James Morgan Thurmond wrote an interesting book on this subject called Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance.

Top instrumentalists and pop artists alike have mastered the art of timing. Listen to the way the young Michael Jackson shapes each syllable in a flowing and expressive way in the The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit, “I’ll Be There.” His performance coveys a natural and powerful sense of timing, right down to the release of each “there” in the repetitions of the chorus at the end of the song. Or listen to Broadway legend Barbara Cook shape the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” 

Violinist Isaac Stern summed up the importance of timing the following way in an interview: [quote] “Music in essence is what is happening between the printed notes, not on the notes themselves. How in that milli-milli-millisecond of time in going from one note to another note do you do what you do? Instinctively, thoughtfully, with head, heart, taste, and talent.”[/quote]

Watch Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Think about how it may be similar to the flow, development and timing of a musical performance. The routine centers around the confusion which ensues when players on a baseball team happen to have unusual last names such as “Who”, “What”, and so on…

Jack Benny and the Violin

Here are a few of Jack Benny’s classic comedy routines featuring the violin. In his performances, Benny was know for his “bad” violin playing. In reality, he was a competent violinist and the owner of a Stradivarius. Through the years, Jack Benny’s guests included Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz. His show broke racial barriers in the United States with its human portrayal of the African-American butler, Rochester, as well as with guests such as Louis Armstrong and the Ink Spots.

This clip with Gisele MacKenzie offers a glimpse into the genius of Benny’s violin-centered comedy.

Here is a full episode, guest starring Isaac Stern:

Here is a clip with Toni Marcus:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]More Jack Benny Clips[/typography]

For more funny Jack Benny clips visit Jack Benny Shows Off His Strad.