Remembering Lydia Mordkovitch

Lydia-Mordkovitch-250
Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014)

Russian-born violinist Lydia Mordkovitch passed away earlier in the week. She was a student of David Oistrakh and served as his assistant in the late 1960s. In this interview she talks about her Russian musical roots and the influence of Oistrakh’s teaching.

Mordkovitch emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1980. In 1995 she joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music. Her extensive discography on the Chandos label includes music of English composers (violin concertos of Arnold Bax, William Alwyn and George Dyson) and Max Bruch’s seldom heard Second and Third Violin Concertos.

Listening to a sample of Lydia Mordkovitch’s recordings, I was struck by the soulfulness and honesty of her musicianship. While many contemporary violinists seem to sound alike, her tone was distinctive. The Loure from J.S. Bach’s Third Partita (the second movement in the final clip below) is an example of Mordkovitch’s singing approach to sound and wide array of tonal colors.

Strad Magazine offered the following description in a 2009 review of Mordkovitch’s CD of Russian violin music:

To hear Lydia Mordkovitch at the peak of her interpretative powers is like being thrown back half a century when the likes of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin held sway…She has never believed in half measures and here every note is played to its maximum expressive potential, whether it is a raging violin fortissimo or a gentle viola pizzicato.

Here is the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:

Olivier Messiaen’s Thème et variations was written in 1932 as a wedding gift for the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos:

Here is Mordkovitch’s 1987 recording of J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E:

Oleh Krysa Plays Solo Bach

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

A few days ago, I was excited to run across this rare, old recording of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, performed by my former teacher, Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa. A student of David Oistrakh, Krysa currently teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was awarded first prize at the 1963 Paganini Competition. Between 1977 and 1990, he served as first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, founded at the Moscow Conservatory. He has maintained an international solo career.

Although this recording does not appear to be commercially available, you can find Oleh Krysa’s extensive discography here and here.

The violin must sing! And the violin can sing with the help of the right hand. No matter whether you are playing cantilena or passages, the technique must “sound,” it must be melodious and always esthetically meaningful.

-Oleh Krysa (from an interview in “The Way They Play,” Book 14, by Samuel Applebaum and Mark Zilberquit)

1. Adagio:

2. Fuga Allegro:

3. Siciliano:

4. Presto:

Brahms’ Fourth: A Symphonic Swan Song

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Take a moment and consider the vast number of nineteenth century symphonies which, in one way or another, take an unequivocal journey from darkness to light. The long arc of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its transcendent final movement, is a perfect example. In the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, C minor turns into C major, and the trombones (who wait through the first three movements without playing a note) suddenly add a new, heroically transformative voice to the mix.

By contrast, Johannes Brahms’ final symphonic statement, the Fourth Symphony, takes a starkly different road. Its opening sighs (later echoed in the third of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, Op. 121) suggest melancholy lament. The ferocious concluding bars of the fourth movement tumble towards a resolution punctuated by a stern E minor chord (listen to the way the music loses its balance at 39:22 in the recording below). The dark finality of that last chord rings in our ears after the music is over. “Is that it?” we ask, feeling almost cheated out of the transfiguration we expected.

But the thorny realism of Brahms’ Fourth leaves us with a strangely powerful feeling of catharsis. The music evokes a complex, indescribable range of emotions. For example, in the opening of the first movement, consider the emotional ambiguity of the chord at 0:10. We might expect a simple, straightforward E minor chord at this moment, but listen to the way one added pitch in the woodwinds creates something infinitely more complex, mysterious and ambiguous.

Like Beethoven’s compositional style, Brahms’ music develops through short motivic cells, evolving, sometimes struggling, and working out a way forward. This sense of constant development led composer and Wagner enthusiast Hugo Wolf to accuse Brahms of “composing without ideas.” But in his 1933 essay, Brahms the Progressivetwelve-tone innovator Arnold Schoenberg suggested that Brahms’ compositional style (regarded as “conservative” during his lifetime) anticipated the breakdown of tonality in the twentieth century. Regardless, even some of Brahms’ friends were befuddled by the symphony when it was first performed, encouraging him to discard whole movements and allow others to remain as stand-alone pieces. On October 25, 1885, when Brahms performed a two piano version of the Fourth Symphony for friends (prior to its first official full orchestra premiere), the critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick, who turned pages for the performance, said,

For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.

Listening to the first movement, you may sense mystery and danger lurking somewhere beneath the surface. The sudden, ominous moment at 3:05 ushers in quiet, spirited fanfares which grow into emphatic statements. Notice the way this music returns throughout the movement. In the development section it plunges deeper into mysterious territory (5:19).

You’ll hear moments of incredible contrapuntal complexity. In his book, The Compleat ConductorGunther Schuller describes the music which follows 3:05 as,

a multi-layered structure of such complexity that I dare say there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring; one has to turn to Ives’s Fourth Symphony to find a parallel.

Instead of triumphantly returning to the recapitulation, we tiptoe, holding our breath (7:18). The first movement, which began with a restless sense of melancholy, ends in stern, resolute E minor.

The opening of the second movement is built on the ancient Phrygian mode and also hints at C major, but listen to the way we’re quickly pulled from this “wrong” key back into E minor. As the movement progresses, the theme we heard first in the solitary horn solo grows in intensity and scale. At 20:13 listen to the standoff between the winds and the strings. One of the aspects which makes this moment so amazing (and typical of Brahms) is the way the strings overlap with the winds and respond in asymmetrical phrases.

Brahms’ third movement is not a scherzo, as we would expect, but is instead built on Sonata form. Listen to the conversations taking place between instruments (the inner voices and bass at 24:42). Also, notice the addition of the triangle. What personas are suggested by these sounds?

A marriage of Romanticism and classical form occurs throughout Brahms’ music. The fourth movement looks back to the Baroque era, employing a passacaglia. Thirty variations are built on this repeating bass line, adapted from J.S. Bach’s cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. As you listen, consider the atmosphere of each variation. Do you hear a sense of lament in the music, which was present from the beginning of the first movement?

Here is Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic’s legendary performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98:

  1. Allegro non troppo (0:00)
  2. Andante moderato (12:50)
  3. Allegro giocoso (24:14)
  4. Allegro energico e passionato (30:22)

Notable Recordings and Links

Share your thoughts on Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and your favorite recordings in the thread below.

Joshua Bell’s Bach Album

Unknown-24Joshua Bell released his newest album yesterday. The CD, simply titled “Bach”, is Bell’s first recording collaboration with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2011.

If you’re expecting another predictable round of Bach concertos, you may be surprised. This album includes the monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 2 with Mendelssohn’s rare piano accompaniment (adapted for orchestra), as well as Schumann’s accompaniment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3. It’s not the way you would want to hear solo Bach every day. In fact, Mendelssohn’s addition practically turns the Chaconne into a completely new piece. Still, these offerings fall to the category of historical curiosity and are worth exploring.

It’s the A Minor and E Major Violin Concertos which make this recording stand out. The connection between Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields feels more like chamber music than a violin solo with orchestra accompaniment. There is incredible attention to detail, balance, and sense of dialogue. In the haunting second movement of the E Major Concerto, the bass line converses with the solo violin, while long sustained chords in the violins suggest an atmosphere of mystery. Bell occasionally adds ornaments and captures the joy of the Baroque dance-like rhythms. Air on the G String is also included. “Bach” is available on iTunes.

The release of Joshua Bell’s CD coincided with his return to the Washington D.C. metro yesterday. This time, unlike his extensively publicized 2007 experiment, commuters recognized him and stopped to listen.

You can hear Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in this clip of the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Also, listen to him play the Bach Chaconne in its original, unaccompanied form:

Yo-Yo Ma, Citizen Artist

cellist Yo-Yo Ma
cellist Yo-Yo Ma

Last week’s On Being interview with Yo-Yo Ma was a great reminder that Ma is more than one of the world’s great cellists. He’s a “citizen artist”, a philosopher, and an insightful commentator on the role of music in contemporary life.

These days, Yo-Yo Ma enjoys transcending imagined boundaries and playing a wide variety of music, most notably through his Silk Road ProjectHe considers the label “classical music” an arbitrary commercial category. He likens performing onstage to being the host of a party where soloist and audience share in a powerful communal experience. His belief in the importance of humanity in music-making was echoed last week in an interesting post by Neoclassical author, Holly Mulcahy.

What better way to start the week than by listening to Yo-Yo Ma perform the Prelude from the first of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello? Listen to the way Bach is able to outline rich harmony using a single solo instrument.

The bow, which draws out sound, is the lungs. The strings on the instrument are the vocal chords.

-Yo-Yo Ma

Mendelssohn’s Octet: Youth Meets Maturity

The original manuscript of Mendelssohn's Octet
The original manuscript of Mendelssohn’s Octet

If you’re beyond your teenage years, take a moment and try to remember what you were doing when you were 16 years old. Then listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 and consider that this is the music of a 16-year-old. It brims with youthful joy, virtuosity, vitality and a playful sense of delight in showing off. At the same time, there isn’t a hint of immaturity in this music. Amazingly, as a teenager, Mendelssohn was tapping into the deepest source of musical creativity.

The Octet’s final movement, built on an eight part fugue, quotes “And He Shall Reign” from the “Hallelujah” Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Mendelssohn boldly interrupts Handel’s original motive with his own ending. There’s no way of knowing if the quote was intentional or subconscious. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was drawn to the music of Handel and J.S. Bach. At age 20 he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, which inspired a renewal of interest in Bach’s music. You might hear a momentary hint of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in the development section of the Scherzo (in the passage following 23:39).

Completed in October of 1825, the Octet is scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos. In the score Mendelssohn writes:

This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.

Whether I’m performing or listening to the Octet, I’m always amazed by the dramatic action going on in the inner voices. For example, listen to the explosive scale lines around 3:04 in the first movement. Throughout the piece, the eight distinct voices may suggest unique personas. Listen to the way they interact and converse with one another. Amid the final movement’s dense counterpoint, listen for the moment toward the end of the movement when Mendelssohn brings back fragments of the Scherzo (29:52).

Here is a recording of the Amati String Orchestra:

  1. 00:00 – Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
  2. 14:08 – Andante
  3. 21:22- Scherzo
  4. 25:52- Presto

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony: An Explosion of Counterpoint

Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony

The final movement of Mozart’s final symphony ends with a bang…a joyfully exhilarating explosion of counterpoint. Like a roller coaster ride, this last movement often feels enticingly dangerous, as if it’s on the verge of spinning out of control. Somehow, it always ends up staying on the track. By the end of the coda, Mozart has simultaneously combined five independent musical themes from the movement, creating a stunning musical fireworks display.

Mozart’s last three symphonies (39, 40 and 41) were written, back to back, in the summer of 1788. John Adams observed that many composers seem to drift towards increasingly contrapuntal writing in their final years. Beyond Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler are prime examples. Counterpoint refers to multiple independent musical voices occurring at the same time.

Let’s listen to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major K. 551, nicknamed the “Jupiter”, starting with the first movement. You can hear the influence of opera in the musical dialogues which run throughout the symphony. The movement opens with a conversation between two seemingly contrasting characters. Later, in the second theme, more conversation occurs between the violins and cellos (2:31). The silent pauses, where the music suddenly stops, seem as important as the notes. At 3:50, following one of these pauses, a direct quote of Mozart’s earlier aria, Un bacio di mano K. 541 pops up unexpectedly.

The second movement is a French Sarabande, a dance form which J.S. Bach used in the solo violin, cello and keyboard suites. Try closing your eyes as you listen. Beyond the calm beauty of the opening, do you hear a hint of darkness, tragedy and tumult in the music?

The Austrian Landler third movement is fun because of its sense of motion and flow. The Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording, below, demonstrates the extent to which style comes out of rhythm and tempo. Rhythmic “feel” and expression are closely connected.

The final movement is built on four notes (C, D, F, E) which have ancient roots in plainchant (listen to Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua). Mozart used this motive in at least two of his symphonies (1 and 33) and in his Missa brevis No. 3. Here, the motive develops into some of the most complex counterpoint and fugal writing ever imagined. In the coda, beginning in 41:16, listen for all five motives occurring simultaneously…a true explosion of counterpoint.

  1. Allegro vivace 0:00
  2. Andante  cantabile 13:31
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto 25:05
  4. Molto allegro 31:15

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Viktoria Mullova Goes for Baroque

Viktoria Mullova BachIt’s rare for violin soloists to drastically rethink their approach to a composer, leaving behind two contrasting recordings of the same music. But that’s exactly what happened over the course of 15 years with Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Six Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin.

Following the release of a spectacular 1994 Philips recording featuring a modern interpretation, Mullova re-recorded solo Bach in 2009 on the Onyx label, this time with a Walter Barbiero Baroque bow, gut strings (rather than modern metal strings) and a tuning note lowered from the standard A 440 Hz to the A 415 Hz of Bach’s time. She played a 1750 G.B. Guadagnini violin.

You can read about Mullova’s gradual evolution to Baroque performance practice here. Listen to excerpts of the modern 1994 recording here and then compare it with a sample from the equally great 2009 recording below. Qualities which set this performance apart are the consistent sense of Baroque dance, the distinct drama and tone colors of each variation, and the natural way one variation unfolds into the next.

Here is the monumental Ciaconna from the D minor Partita, BWV 1004:

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For another sample from Mullova’s 2009 recording, listen to the Fuga from Sonata No. 2 in A Minor. Here is a a live 2013 performance of Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto. 

Born in Russia, Viktoria Mullova was a student of Leonid Kogan. She won first prize at the 1980 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in Helsinki and the Gold Medal at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition. In 1983 she daringly defected to the West during a concert tour, leaving a Soviet-owned Stradivarius behind on a hotel bed.

A survey of recordings from Hilary Hahn to Nathan Milstein shows a diverse range of approaches to solo Bach. Listening to this recording, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling interpretation.