The Lonely Introspection of Brahms’ Op. 116, No. 4

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

 

Let’s finish the week with Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E major, No. 4 from the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 for piano. Written in 1892 in the final years of Brahms’ life, this is music infused with a deep sense of lonely introspection. It draws us into a dreamlike world where every chord and hesitating pause seem to have something important to say.

There are moments when the rhythmic feel changes in interesting ways, obliterating our sense of “strong” and “weak” beats. We also get a visceral sense of the spacial dimension in this music: lines pull apart and converge in an elaborate musical architecture. We feel the width of the piano’s keyboard. And listen to the aching beauty of this passage, in which a series of voices pour passionately from the piano in imitative, canonic counterpoint.

As Op. 116, No. 4 draws to a close, the pitch “E” in the bass takes on increasing power, as if to foreshadow the inevitability of a final resolution. When that resolution comes, it’s met with peaceful acceptance.

Here is American pianist Richard Goode’s 1987 recording:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • András Schiff plays the entire Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 in this live performance.

Mozart’s Last Piano Concerto

250px-Croce-Mozart-DetailLast week we stepped into the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s Late string quartets, music which stylistically leaves behind everything that came before and offers up profound and timeless revelations.

In its own way, Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B flat major, KV 595) makes a similar, if more subtle departure. It still sounds like the Mozart we know, but listen carefully and you may notice something different about this music…perhaps an occasional hint of wistful sadness and even wrenching pain.

Concerto No. 27 was first performed in early 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, at a concert that may have marked Mozart’s final public appearance on the concert stage. By this time, Mozart’s performing career was already winding down. His wife, Constanze was ill and he was deeply in debt. He was treated with contempt by the new Emperor, Leopold II. The publisher, Hoffmeister, refused to continue to publish Mozart’s music unless the composer turned out simpler and more popular works, to which Mozart replied, “Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.” But the sizable amount of music Mozart wrote in 1791 (which included a piece for glass harmonica, a string quartet, the Clarinet ConcertoThe Magic Flute, and the Requiem) transcended all of this.

Concerto No. 27 opens with a wordless conversation between two contrasting opera characters. The strings make a quietly passionate opening statement amid playfully comic interjections by the winds. At the 0:37 mark, the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony (completed three years earlier in 1788) briefly surfaces. (Listen here for a comparison). Similar to Jupiter, Mozart’s final concerto is filled with counterpoint (multiple musical lines happening at the same time). As you listen, notice all of the musical voices surrounding the piano line: the way they weave together, move apart, and converse. From the violins to the flute, oboe, and bassoon, each voice has a distinct persona and something to say. You can hear this in the passage beginning around 4:00, with the entrance of the flute. Or listen a few moments later when the piano and strings fade into a solitary woodwind line. Notice the way the line grows and changes shape, as the oboe, flute, and piano trade places.

Entering the first movement’s development section, we’re suddenly confronted with one of those hints of sadness I mentioned earlier. This once assured music gradually begins to falter and fade into silent pauses. When the piano enters, we’re in a new and different world. And do you remember those playful woodwind interjections from the movement’s opening? Now they are transformed into a shockingly stern interruption in the wrong key. A moment later, the piano picks up the “interruption” motive and the oboe takes the singing piano melody. Listen for all of this here and then notice the way we return safely home at the recapitulation.

The second movement is a quietly introspective aria. Amid the simple perfection of the opening melody, perhaps a lonely, solemn march, there’s a sense of lingering sadness. Again, notice the way the voices interact: the three distinct voices in the strings, joined by the singing woodwind line in this passage, the oboe joining the bassoon in a single, sustained pitch here, the winds interjecting with a repeated chord a few moments into this excerpt.

The opening melody’s final statement occurs as a shadowy whisper, the piano, flute and violins sharing the melody and creating an almost ghostly sonority. In the final moments of the second movement, there’s a sense that the music doesn’t want to let go as it shifts to a series of deceptive cadences to avoid an ultimate resolution. In the final bars, seven distinct contrapuntal voices can be heard.

The frolicking final movement dances with playful, comic interruptions. The cadenzas in the first and final movements (often improvised by the performer) were written by Mozart. At the end of this final cadenza, the solo piano pauses for a moment of brief introspection. In the final bars, the main motive is tossed around the orchestra as the piano erupts in joyful, bubbling arpeggios.

Nine days after completing Concerto No. 27, Mozart incorporated the final movement’s theme into the song, Sehnsucht nach den Frühlinge:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

Now that we’ve touched on a few details, let’s listen to the entire piece without interruption. Here is an exceptional performance with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Find Maria João Pires’ recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart at iTunes, Amazon.

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.

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.

Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

Isaac Stern with Elmo
Isaac Stern plays a duet with Elmo

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting.

Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on future programming remains to be seen. But a quick glance back shows that classical music has long been at home on Sesame Street, perhaps giving some children their only exposure to the art form.

Here is a sampling of some of the prominent musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street over the years. Many of these skits involve wacky and unsophisticated comedy. (When Isaac Stern asked for “an A” as a tuning note, he was presented with the letter A). The muppets seem to be asking the questions children might ask if they were there.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

The Kronos Quartet

Renée Fleming

Gustavo Dudamel

Wynton Marsalis

Lang Lang

Yo-Yo Ma

Seiji Ozawa

Itzhak Perlman

The Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

MI0000979737Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).

Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.

Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:

…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.

Listen to the second and third movements.

  • Find the Mischa Maisky/Martha Argerich recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Martin Fröst/Jonathan Biss recording at Amazon.

Live Concert Recording: Gingold Plays Fauré

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Over the weekend, I ran across this amazing 1966 live concert recording of Josef Gingold performing Gabriel Fauré’s First Violin Sonata. The recording’s sound quality isn’t the best. But the essence of Gingold’s soulful, sweetly vibrant tone and smooth, golden phrasing cuts through the tape hiss and audience noise. In a recent interview Joshua Bell described the tone that poured out of Gingold’s Strad as, “the most beautiful sound of any violinist, to this day, that I’ve heard.”

A student of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Gingold performed in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and served as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violin teachers, Gingold served on the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for more than thirty years. His students included Joshua Bell, Corey Cerovsek, Leonidas Kavakos, Miriam Fried, and William Preucil. In a past Listeners’ Club post, we explored Gingold’s approach to violin playing and teaching.

Gabriel Fauré’s music often seems to float with an elegant effervescence and buoyant sense of forward motion. Musicologists have viewed Fauré as a link between Romanticism and the hazy, rule-breaking Impressionism of Claude Debussy. We hear all of this in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major. First performed in 1877, the piece was initially rejected by Parisian publishers who found its harmonies shockingly adventurous. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had been Fauré’s teacher, wrote:

In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms…And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.

Here is the first movement, Allegro molto. The music opens with waves of luxurious sound in the piano. The violin enters, picking up the piano’s motive and developing it. The music soars increasingly higher, culminating in a particularly luscious passage (1:08-1:17) before falling back. At moments, you may be reminded of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, also in A major, written a few years later in 1886.

In this performance Gingold is joined by pianist Walter Robert.

The second movement, Andante:

The third movement, Allegro vivo:

The fourth movement, Allegro quasi presto:

  • Find this recording, The Art of Josef Gingold at iTunesAmazon.
  • Joshua Bell talks about Gingold in this Strad Magazine interview.

Liszt’s “Forgotten Romance” with the Viola

Violist Kim Kashkashian (photo by Steve Riskind)
violist Kim Kashkashian (photo by Steve Riskind)

It’s an example of one piece of music “giving birth” to another.

In 1880 Franz Liszt’s publisher requested a reprint of a piece Liszt had written in 1848: the Romance in E for piano. The two minute Romance begins and ends in a slightly turbulent E minor. In between, it restlessly moves, first into the relative major key of G and then flirts with a distant and ultimately unattainable A-flat major. At this moment you can hear how badly the music wants to resolve in A-flat. It ends up getting cut off by E major, which pulls us back where we belong. The final bars of the piece seem to want to hold onto the fleeting sunlight of major before sinking back into the inevitable E minor.

Franz Liszt ended up transforming the first five pitches of the Romance in E into a completely new piece, the Romance oubliée (“Forgotten Romance) for viola and piano. It seems to be the only solo viola music Liszt wrote, apart from a transcription of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. The viola arpeggios we hear in the second movement of Harold in Italy creep in towards the end of Romance oubliée at a moment of solemn transcendence (beginning at 2:55).

Here is a 1984 recording by violist Kim Kashkashian (not to be confused with a certain television personality and model with a similar name) and pianist Robert Levin:

  • Find Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Romance oubliée at iTunes, Amazon
  • Find Jenő Jandó’s recording of Liszt’s Romance in E at iTunes, Naxos