Gabriela Montero’s New Recording: Rachmaninov and “Ex Patria”

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Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter  and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.

In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto  and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:

Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:

Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.

The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.

Adolf Busch: The Violinist Who Stood Up to Fascism

German violinist, Adolf Busch (1891-1952)
German violinist Adolf Busch (1891-1952)

Tully Potter’s collection of books and CD’s, Adolf Busch- The Life of an Honest Musician, published in 2010, tells the remarkable story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Adolf Busch toured Europe as an exponent of the classic German style of violin playing, which had been associated with Joseph Joachim. The leader of the Busch Quartet, as well as a chamber orchestra, Busch’s approach to violin playing favored musicianship over dazzling displays of virtuosity.

The rise of Hitler in the late 1920s tested the eternally political and backbiting classical music profession. Musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss reportedly didn’t approve of the Third Reich (neither joined the Nazi Party), but both tolerated Hitler, motivated by career preservation. As Potter’s book recounts, the Busch Quartet arrived in Berlin on April 1, 1933, the day the Nazis began a targeted assault on Jewish businesses. Following the evening’s concert, Busch, who was not Jewish, cancelled his entire German tour. He settled in Switzerland and watched as fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler’s efforts to lure back “the world’s greatest German violinist” fell on deaf ears. 

Eventually, Busch emigrated to the United States. He never regained the reputation he had enjoyed in Europe. American audiences were enthralled with younger, flashier artists such as Jascha Heifetz and Busch’s style of playing may have seemed out of date. Listening now, it’s easier to recognize Busch’s artistry. The recording below showcases a deep and mature musicianship, a straightforward and honest sense of timing and a beautifully pure sound.

Yehudi Menuhin hinted at similar attributes as he remembered lessons with Adolf Busch:

Busch’s teaching was…musical rather than violinistic. If he didn’t have Enesco’s flair or glamour, as a musician he was extremely serious and deep, a passionate fundamentalist who ate, breathed, and slept Bach and Beethoven. He played the violin cleanly and beautifully, if with no Russian or Gypsy touch.*

Here is a 1930s recording of Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. The duo founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in 1951.

Here are the second and third movements. Also listen to the Busch Quartet’s dramatic and fiery reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet. 

Adolf Busch was also active as a composer. Listen to his Violin Concerto here. Read this review and watch this video to learn more.

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 327)

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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Blurring Boundaries with Gabriel Kahane

songwriter Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

Songwriter Gabriel Kahane (b. 1981) is set to release a new album called The Ambassador on June 3. For a sample, listen to the opening track, Black Garden.

An eclectic blend of classical, folk, and rock elements, Kahane’s music defies category, bringing to mind Duke Ellington’s famous quote:

There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.

In the twentieth century, a vast gulf grew between “serious” and “popular” music. Hopefully, these boundaries will blur in the twenty-first century. It’s worth remembering that Schubert’s songs would have been considered popular music when they were first written.

Gabriel Kahane is the son of pianist and conductor Jeffery Kahane. Learn more about his songwriting here and listen to Come On All You Ghosts and other music.

Where are the Arms

If you’ve never heard Kahane’s harmonically adventurous songs, take a moment and listen to Charming Disease, Where Are The Arms, and Last Dance from his 2011 album, Where are the Arms.

Here is the song LA from the same album:

Schubert Songs of Spring

spring flowersTomorrow is the first day of spring. With warmer temperatures, blooming foliage and a sense of renewal, spring has long been a rich source of poetic inspiration. Here are three songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) which feature spring:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring)[/typography]

The poem is by Johann Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). Here is baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore:

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When I listen to Schubert’s songs, I always have the sense that every note is perfect. Great expression grows out of simplicity. But Schubert also loves to throw in a surprising and memorable chord when we least expect it (listen to the harmonic tension around 0:11). Notice how the music relates to the text at 0:57: “Now poor heart, be not afraid!” With one chord Schubert is able to cast a momentary shadow, transporting us from the pure, innocent  world of nature to the world of man.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Im Fruhling (In Spring)[/typography]

This song’s text is by Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817). Here is an English translation. This recording features tenor Ian Bostridge:

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For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this melody is the way it wants to pull away from the home key of G major. The first move away (from G to C) is subtle and short-lived  (0:24). Then we get a full modulation from G to A at 0:33.

These sudden key changes are fun because they play on the elements of expectation and surprise. Equally thrilling is the way Schubert suddenly and skillfully slides back into the correct key. Throughout Schubert’s music, the relationship between keys is an important dramatic element.

The poem suggests that the beautiful scenery of spring, in this case linked to romantic love, is fragile and elusive. Holding onto a moment in time is as impossible as capturing “Spring’s first sunbeam:”

[quote]Quietly I sit on the hill’s slope.
The sky is so clear;
a breeze plays in the green valley
where I was at Spring’s first sunbeam
once – ah, I was so happy;[/quote]

For the fifth stanza (2:40) the music slips into a stormy G minor as the text turns darker:

[quote]The only things that change are will and illusion:
Joys and quarrels alternate,
the happiness of love flies past
and only the love remains –
The love and, ah, the sorrow.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Am Bach im Frühling (By the Brook in Springtime)[/typography]

Here is mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and pianist Irwin Gage. The poem by Franz Adolf Friedrich von Schober (1796-1882) offers a melancholy view of spring. Can you hear the flowing brook in the piano accompaniment?

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Late Beethoven Revelations

Takacs Beethoven QuartetsThe greatest composers serve as visionaries and prophets, giving us a glimpse at a higher reality. Looking back through music history, many composers seem to have experienced a sharpening of this sense of vision in the final years of life. The Ninth and final symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner are filled with mystery, foreboding and spirituality. The first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth is marked “Feierlich (Solemn) and ” misterioso.” Schubert’s Ninth Symphony“The Great”, is a sublime Romantic statement which, in scale, eclipses all of his previous classical symphonies. In his book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes about late Mozart:

[quote]In creative work we play undisguisedly with the fleetingness of our life, with some awareness of our own death. Listen to Mozart’s later music-you hear all its lightness, energy, transparency, and good humor, yet you also hear the breath of ghosts blowing through it. Death and life came to be that close for him. It was the completeness and intensity with which both primal forces met and fused in him, and his freedom to play with those forces, that mad Mozart the supreme artist he was.[/quote]

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its use of chorus and solo voices, redefined the symphony and set a monumental and intimidating example for composers who followed.

Equally interesting is the music Beethoven wrote after the Ninth Symphony: the Late String Quartets (Op. 127-135) which remain some of the most mysterious and profound music ever conceived. This music is so far out that, at times, you might swear that you’re listening to something from the twentieth century. Let’s listen to the Takacs Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132:

1. Assai sostenuto- Allegro:

2. Allegro ma non tanto:

3. Molto Adagio– Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung:

4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (attacca) 

5. Allegro appassionato – Presto

For me, one of the most amazing aspects of this music is the way it seems fully to transcend style and historical period. There are echoes of the Ninth Symphony, especially in the operatic, “wordless” violin recitative which forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth movements (36:10). In the final movement of the Ninth, Beethoven quotes the themes of each preceding movement, musically rejecting each and moving forward with the transcendental “Ode to Joy.” In a similar way, with these quartets, Beethoven moves past all of his earlier works into strange, new musical territory.

Go back and listen to the third movement (17:24) one more time. Having recovered from a serious illness, Beethoven titled this movement “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The music abruptly alternates between slow, chorale like sections in modal F and faster sections (“with renewed strength”) in D. At times there is an almost child-like playfulness. It’s powerful music which goes beyond words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Great Fugue, Op. 133[/typography]

[quote]It is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.- Igor Stravinsky[/quote]

Here is the Takacs Quartet performing the mind-blowing Great Fugue, Op. 133. Beethoven originally intended it to be the final movement of Quartet No. 13. He ended up replacing it with another movement. After you listen, you’ll probably get a sense of why this intense music had to stand alone. Listen to the complex imitative counterpoint. What do you think Beethoven is saying with this music?

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Songs of Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Schubert and Beethoven were contemporaries at the dawn of the Romantic Era, yet each approached composition differently.  Beethoven painstakingly developed small musical motives that roared to life as shockingly innovative music. The music of Franz Schubert on the other hand, is firmly rooted in long, flowing, effortless melodies. Although Schubert lived only to the age of 32, he wrote over 600 songs.

Before we get to a few Schubert songs, let’s consider what draws us to a great melody.  What makes it so satisfying and fun? How do a combination of pitches conjure up emotions which cannot be fully described by words?  Leonard Bernstein discusses musical semantics in detail in his Norton Lectures.  More generally, part of a melody’s drama lies in its ability to play with our expectations.  As we listen, we have a sense of all the notes that would be “right” at any given moment.  Our expectations are either fulfilled or we are surprised with something unexpected.  Our enjoyment of our favorite melody only increases as we hear it, even though we know what’s coming.

Listen to Schubert’s Impromptu for Piano, D 899, No. 3 and consider how melody and harmony are used to fulfill your expectations or surprise you.  You may even notice that Schubert suddenly changes key and transports the music to a completely different place emotionally.  You’ll also hear a distinctly vocal quality.

Impromptu for Piano in G-flat Major, D 899, No. 3…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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Der Erlkonig (or The Erl King) is one of Schubert’s most famous songs.  Set to a poem by Goethe, it is the musical equivalent of a modern day horror film.  The story depicts a father riding on horseback through the night, cradling his son.  A ghost, or demon, known as the Erl King begins speaking to the boy.  The frightened child warns his father, but the father assures him that he is only hearing the wind.

Schubert evokes the galloping horse musically with repeated notes and a sinister opening motive.  One singer performs the roles of the narrator, the father, the child and the Erl King.  Listen for the way Schubert changes the music for each character. As you listen, follow the English translation below:

Der Erlkonig, D 328…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves.”

“Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

 

Here is another setting of Goethe, Heidenroslein (or Rose on the Hearth). The poem’s topic is a young man’s rejected love.  You can read an English translation here.

Heidenroslein, D 257…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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