Alan Curtis Plays Wildly Dissonant Couperin

Alan Curtis (1934-2015)
Alan Curtis (1934-2015)

 

Alan Curtis, American harpsichordist, musicologist, and conductor of baroque opera, passed away suddenly on Wednesday in Florence, Italy. He was 80.

Curtis leaves behind many groundbreaking recordings, including harpsichord music by J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and French keyboard masters like Rameau and Louis Couperin. Curtis founded the European period orchestra Il Complesso Barocco. With that ensemble he recorded numerous works, including an extensive catalogue of Handel operas.

Let’s listen to Alan Curtis perform Prelude, Courante, and Passacaille in G minor by Louis Couperin (c. 1626-1661). Notice the way the Passacaille (beginning at 5:25), constructed on a repeating, descending four-note bass line, gradually becomes increasingly complex and far-reaching after its relatively simple opening. As the intensity builds, fasten your seat belt for some extraordinarily wild dissonances around the 8:18 mark. Also, listen closely to the luscious pandiatonic chord at 8:50, a sound that would be at home in a contemporary pop song.

Cellist Zuill Bailey in Williamsburg

Cellist Zuill Bailey
Cellist Zuill Bailey (photo from zuillbailey.com)

It’s always a thrill to perform with top-level guest soloists. They feed the collective soul of the orchestra and often elevate concerts into highly memorable events.

American cellist Zuill Bailey brought that kind of electricity to the final concerts of the Williamsburg (Virginia) Symphonia season Monday and Tuesday evening. Bailey performed Robert Schumann’s restless and sometimes thorny Cello Concerto with soulfulness and ease. During rehearsals and performances, I was impressed with the singing tone he drew from his 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello, previously owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. At moments in the second movement of the Schumann, the music became a barely audible whisper. Before performing the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s First Solo Cello Suite as an encore, Bailey reminded the audience that in 1693, the year his instrument was made, Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary was founded and Bach was 8 years old.

In addition to an international career as a soloist and chamber musician, Zuill Bailey serves on the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso. He is Artistic Director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington. You may have seen (and heard) him on the popular HBO series, Oz, where his instrument’s endpin became a murder weapon. Explore Zuill Bailey’s extensive discography here and on iTunes.

Here is the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1. 

Here is a piece that blends chamber music and the concerto: Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” for Violin, Cello and Piano. Violinst Giora Schmidt and pianist Navah Perlman join Bailey. Itzhak Perlman is conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra:

On Sunday tourists at colonial Williamsburg were treated to an impromptu concert outside the Kimball Theatre on Merchant’s Square:

Cellist Zuill Bailey gives an impromptu performance of solo Bach in Williamsburg, Virginia on May 3.
Cellist Zuill Bailey gives an impromptu performance of solo Bach in Williamsburg, Virginia on May 3.

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

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Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

 

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddlerthe American Masters documentary which aired last week on PBS, offers an inside look at the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential violinists. The program includes rare film and audio clips and features interviews with prominent contemporary violinists and former Heifetz students. It follows Heifetz from child prodigy roots in Russia, where he was a student of Leopold Auer at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to his immigration to the United States and longtime residence in Southern California. In addition to his private and somewhat lonely personal temperament, the documentary highlights Heifetz’s rigorous sense of discipline and emphasis on scales.

Jascha Heifetz raised the bar for all violinists who followed, his name becoming synonymous with technical perfection. His recordings suggest an exhilarating sense of pushing limits…staying right “on the edge” without ever falling. This quality seems to have been present from the beginning. As the story goes, the young Jascha launched into Paganini’s Moto perpetuo at such a stunningly fast tempo that Leopold Auer gasped, saying, “He doesn’t even realize that it can’t be played that fast.” Heifetz’s playing transcended sentimentality, unleashing raw power and blinding intensity.

A Sample of Heifetz Recordings

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:

The Sibelius Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960:

Chaconne, From Partita No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy:

Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So:

There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.

-Jascha Heifetz

Celebrating Tax Day with Burlesque Bach

250px-Johann_Sebastian_BachIf you’ve been griping about taxes recently, you may sympathize with the characters in J.S. Bach’s secular Peasant Cantata, BWV 212, first performed in 1742. Bach referred to this popular, comic work as “Cantate burlesque.” Listen to the entire work here.

In this excerpt, Ach, Herr Schösser, geht gar nicht zu schlimm, the farmer decries the unfair burden of land taxes. Here is a translation, beginning with the preceding recitative:

The master is good: but the tax collector
comes straight out of hell.
Quick as a lightning flash he can slap a new tax on land-us
harm the very moment we’ve just got out of hot water.

Ah. Mr tax- collector, Do not Be Too Hard
with us poor peasants.
Leave us our skin.
Eat up the cabbage
Like the caterpiilars to the bare stalk.
That Should Be enough!

Here is Christopher Hogwood and the The Academy of Ancient Music with David Thomas (bass) and Emma Kirkby (soprano):

Nature in the Key of F

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The key of F major has long associations with nature and calm pastoral scenes. As flowers bloom and the pollen count soars, let’s finish out the week with four pieces in F major which evoke images of a springtime pasture:

Bach’s Pastorale in F Major

Historians believe that bagpipes may have predated ancient Rome. On hillsides in southern Italy and beyond, shepherds played Zampogna (Italian bagpipes). You can hear echoes of the Zampogna in J.S. Bach’s Pastorale in F Major, BWV 590, written for organ around 1720. The first movement features gently rolling triplets in 12/8 time. The melody rises above an extended drone with two-voice imitative counterpoint frequently joining in thirds. Three dance movements follow: an Allemande, Aria, and Gigue.

Helmut Walcha made this recording at the Church of Young Saint Peter Protestant in Strasbourg in 1970:

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.

-Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s symphonies are a strange study in moderation. The odd numbered symphonies (3, 5, 7, and 9) are heroic and epic in scale. The equally profound, but less well known, even numbered works (No. 4, 6, and 8) are more classical and introspective.

This sense of compositional “yin and yang” played out between 1804 and 1808 as Beethoven simultaneously sketched the powerful and ferocious Fifth Symphony and a radically contrasting work which encapsulated the poetry of nature: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68. The two symphonies were published within weeks of each other in the spring of 1809 and were first performed on the same program. The Sixth Symphony was inscribed with the programmatically descriptive title, “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Live.”

The Pastoral Symphony retreats into a bucolic world of bird calls, bubbling brooks and rustic folk dances. It’s music brimming with joy and gratitude at nature’s life-sustaining bounty. The outer movements are filled with open fifths, suggesting raw, natural elements and infinite possibility. (This is the first sound we hear at the beginning of the first movement). Motives develop over long periods of time with unbridled expansiveness (1:43). Listen to the multiple rhythmic layers in the strings beginning around the 5:35 mark. Also notice the prominence of the oboes with their pastoral connotations.

Here is Paavo Jarvi conducting the Bremen German Chamber Philharmonic:

  1. Pleasant, Cheerful feelings awakened in a person on arriving in the country. Allegro ma non troppo 0:00
  2. Scene by the brook. Andante molto mosso 12:10
  3. Merry gathering of country folk. Allegro 23:48
  4. Thunderstorm. Allegro 28:51
  5. Shepherd’s Song. Happy and thankful feelings to the deity after the storm. Allegretto 32:20

Berlioz’s Scene in the Country

The third movement (Scene in the Country) of Hector Berlioz’s turbulent Symphony fantastique (1830) transports us to the quiet solitude of the pasture. In the opening and closing of the third movement, there’s a haunting sense that time is standing still. There’s also a spacial element: the dialogue between oboe and English horn evokes two distant shepherds. Listen for the idée fixe (the hero’s leitmotif which runs throughout the piece) at 8:17.

Here is an excerpt from Berloz’s program notes:

One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches‘; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own … But what if she betrayed him! … This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder … solitude … silence …

This is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal:

Blaník from Smetana’s Má vlast

Blaník is one of six symphonic poems that make up Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (“My Homeland”). If you know any music from Má vlast, it’s probably The Moldau.

This music is inspired by a legend involving a huge army of knights asleep inside the mountain, Blaník. In the country’s darkest hour, when four hostile armies attack from all directions, it is believed that St Wenceslaus’ army will awaken and fight.

You can listen to the entire piece here. Here is the pastoral excerpt:

The Rise of Simone Dinnerstein

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Rising to the top of the classical music world requires a combination of talent, hard work, determination, and luck. In 2007, American pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s career was “launched into the stratosphere” with the release of her self-financed recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and an appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. The recording quickly soared to the top of the Amazon classical chart and more disks followed. This CBS Sunday Morning story profiles Dinnerstein’s miraculously self-made career.

Last week, Dinnerstein released another exciting CD on the Sony Classical label. Broadway-Lafayette “celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America” with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, and The Circle and the Child: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a new work written for Dinnerstein by Philip Lasser. Kristjan Järvi conducts the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this interview with Mike Goldberg, classical radio host at WCVE-FM in Richmond, Simone Dinnerstein talks about her newest CD. She also details her exciting “Neighborhood Classics” program in the New York City public schools.

In a world of hype and slick marketing, Simone Dinnerstein, initially working without management or a major record contract, has displayed obvious business savvy. But the ultimate source of her success may lie in her sincerity and dedication to putting the music first. Watch her introduce Bach’s Inventions to schoolchildren at P.S. 321 in New York City. Also watch this short clip from a masterclass in which she talks about drawing a singing sound out of the piano. And don’t miss this home movie of Dinnerstein’s dog listening to her practice Schubert.

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Simone Dinnerstein plays the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s French Suite nº 5 in C major:

The Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

Hilary Hahn: In 27 Pieces

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Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe at the 57th annual Grammy Awards earlier this month in Los Angeles.

 

Earlier this month, violinist Hilary Hahn and accompanist Cory Smythe picked up a Grammy award for their 2013 album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The recording came in first in the Best Chamber/Small Ensemble category.

Don’t be deceived by the album’s title. This isn’t yet another CD of violin showpiece warhorses. It’s a collection of completely new music born out of an intriguingly fresh idea. Hahn noticed that, while the violin repertoire is full of short encore pieces from the past, few contemporary composers have ventured into this territory. After careful consideration, she approached twenty six composers (a process she now jokingly compares to asking someone out on a date) for commissions. A twenty-seventh composer, Jeff Myers (The Angry Birds of Kauai), was selected through an online contest. You can check out Hilary Hahn’s informal discussions with each composer at her youtube channel.

It will be exciting to see if any of this music finds its way into the standard violin repertoire. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a fun CD to enjoy: Jennifer Higdon’s Echo Dash sounds like its title and suggests the dense counterpoint of J.S. Bach. David Lang’s Light Moving takes us on an exciting neo-minimalist joyride. Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Coming To evokes a cinematic atmosphere. Lera Auerbach’s lamenting, romantic Speak, Memory suggests the twentieth century sounds of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen.

And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of this recording-the way the present meets the past. Contemporary composers seem liberated from the need to be “new” or to push forward a dogmatic idea. Ukrainian pianist and composer Valentyn Sylvestrov says,

I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists…With our advanced artistic awareness, fewer and fewer texts are possible which, figuratively speaking, begin ‘at the beginning’… What this means is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, an end in which it can linger for a long time. It is very much in the area of the coda that immense life is possible.

Two Pieces by Valentyn Sylvestrov:

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

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On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.

Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:

Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.

Five Great Recordings