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:
Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.
To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.
Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Jokeand Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comediansquickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’slong, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.
The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:
Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.
Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).
Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…
In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.
Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:
English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.
Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:
Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…
I spent the weekend in the orchestra pit. The Richmond Symphony accompanied Richmond Ballet in five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Written between 1940 and 1944, Prokofiev’s lushly romantic and virtuosic score captures perfectly the drama and atmosphere of the famous fairy tale story.
Here is what Prokofiev said about the score:
[quote]What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path, and finally the dream fulfilled. The fairytale offered a number of fascinating problems for me as a composer – the atmosphere of magic surrounding the Fairy Godmother, the twelve fantastic dwarves that pop out of the clock as it strikes twelve and dance chechotka reminding Cinderella that she must return home; the swift change of scene as the Prince journeys far and wide in search of Cinderella; the poetry of nature personified by the four fairies symbolizing the four seasons…[/quote]
Cinderella is full of quirky and slightly sarcastic melodies which play with our expectations. Prokofiev loves to give us little musical curve balls in the form of “wrong” notes and sudden harmonic twists. More than once he veers off into a completely unrelated key. Here are some highlights from the score:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Going to the Ball[/typography]
In this first excerpt, can you hear Cinderella’s sense of breathless excitement and anticipation? How does Prokofiev’s music capture this mood? After 1:08 notice the way the music alternates between a feeling of two (walking) and a feeling of three (an elegant waltz).
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Cinderella’s Waltz and Midnight[/typography]
Here is the end of the second act. Following the famous waltz, the clock strikes midnight (2:49). Listen to the way the music captures the drama of this critical moment in the story:
Do you remember the theme you heard at the end of the last excerpt? This theme is first introduced at the beginning of the ballet. Representing the love between Cinderella and the Prince, it functions as musical foreshadowing. At the end of the ballet, as Cinderella dances with the prince, the theme returns. Prokofiev creates a feeling of depth and soaring expansiveness in the orchestration. Listen to the wide range between the lowest and highest instruments right up to the final chords as the curtain falls:
[button link=”https://itunes.apple.com/nz/album/prokofiev-cinderella/id509355975″]Find on iTunes[/button] [button link=”https://itunes.apple.com/nz/album/prokofiev-cinderella/id509355975″]Find on Amazon[/button]