Remembering Seymour Lipkin

pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)
pianist Seymour Lipkin (1927-2015)

American pianist and teacher Seymour Lipkin passed away on Monday. He was 88.

Born in Detroit, Lipkin studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and David Saperton. During the Second World War, while still a student at Curtis, he accompanied Jascha Heifetz in concerts for American troops stationed around the world. In 1948 Lipkin won the Rachmaninov Competition, launching a significant solo career. He was a longtime faculty member of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. In his youth, he studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood and George Szell as an apprentice at the Cleveland Orchestra.

Interviews suggest that Seymour Lipkin was the model of a well-rounded artist. As a teenager he was inspired by the music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (He would later serve as Curtis’ opera pianist). For students, he stressed the importance of listening to a variety of music and developing your own interpretation.

Seymour Lipkin was regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Beethoven. In 2004 he released the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the Newport Classics label. Unlike many artists, he was intimately involved in the editing of his recordings, with the goal of capturing the spontaneity and cohesiveness of a live performance. Here, he plays the stormy first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata:

In contrast to the opening movement, the second movement of the “Pathétique” moves to a serene new world:

Here is the Rondo:

The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

Boris Godunov
Tsar Boris Godunov

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt.

History (this time recent) became mythologized in a similar way in John Adams’ 1987 opera, Nixon in China. Early in the first act, the landing of Nixon’s Air Force 1, dubbed the Spirit of ’76, and the appearance of the president and his entourage, take on Wagnerian weight. In Adams’ music, we can hear the plane emerge as a dot on the horizon and approach with an awe-inspiring crescendo, culminating in a heroic landing. The aircraft’s throbbing engines become as poetically powerful and significant as Lohengrin‘s swan. Spectacle takes center stage, literally, as the nose of the Spirit of ’76 suddenly engulfs the entire set.

But when it comes to the ultimate musical and dramatic fireworks, I can’t think of any moment in opera that tops the Coronation Scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, composed between 1868 and 1873. (If you can find an opera scene that pulls out more stops, please share it in the thread below.) As with the arrival of the Spirit of ’76 in Nixon in China, the Coronation Scene occurs early in Boris Godunov (the second scene of the Prologue). Both dramatic events are heightened by a powerful sense of anticipation. A crowd waits for Tsar Boris to appear from Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition and then sings his praises.

Suddenly, amid this celebratory spectacle, we’re drawn into the intimacy of Boris’ monologue. We enter the mind of the character and catch a glimpse of the darkness and tragedy ahead. A similar moment of contemplation occurs in Nixon in China as Nixon daydreams about public perception and his place in history. 

  • Find a recording of Boris Godunov at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Here is the complete synopsis of the opera.
  • Valery Gergiev’s performance of the Coronation Scene.
  • a 1947 historic performance from Moscow’s Bolshoy Theater

Bruckner’s Organ

Bruckner's organ at Abby of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.
The organ Anton Bruckner played at Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.

 

Imagine that you could travel back in time to observe key moments in music history. Maybe you would drop in on Handel as he was preparing the Music for the Royal Fireworks, hear a handful of lost works by J.S. Bach, or attend the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro. 

Anton Bruckner’s legendary organ improvisations would rate high on my personal “musical time machine” top ten list. Bruckner spent many years as organist at the monastic Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria. Additionally, he performed virtuoso and mostly improvisatory organ recitals throughout Europe. Subjects of Bruckner’s expansive improvisations often included the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the Austrian National Anthem, music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, themes from Wagner’s operas, and themes from Bruckner’s own symphonies. This February 1937 Musical Times article describes these memorable musical events.

A Viennese review described a Bruckner organ recital this way:

Has no church been built for him and is there no chair vacant for him? We have experienced many times how he mastered the organ. Yesterday, again he sat down at the organ and freely developed a theme. Oh for the vigor and the abundance that flowed through the chapel! There‘s scarcely one around to challenge Mr. Bruckner in his virtuoso treatment of the pedal; he has really gained some dexterity with the feet. And this corresponds admirably with his agility on the manuals, an agility which is hardly ever confined by difficulties.

It’s ironic that Bruckner, a composer who endlessly revised the music he wrote down and occasionally fell victim to paralyzing self-doubt, simultaneously embraced the ultimate “in the moment” music making. We’ll never know exactly how Bruckner’s organ improvisations sounded. But here is his short Prelude in C Major, written in 1884. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter is performing on the organ Bruckner played at Saint Florian. The composer is buried in the Abbey’s crypt, just below the organ.

The Prelude is technically in C major, but its dizzying chromatic harmony is constantly pulling us away from the home key to unexpected places:

Bruckner’s symphonies often turn the orchestra into a virtual pipe organ. There’s a sense of effortless modulation and orchestration that often doesn’t mix the woodwinds, strings, and brass, but instead celebrates the purity of their unique voices. Organist Erwin Horn writes,

He was accustomed in his improvisations to using themes drawn from the symphonies on which he was working. […] As soon as he would realise the same idea both on the organ and in the orchestra, there would be an interaction between the improvised fantasies and the symphonies with their systematic layout. The sounds of Bruckner‘s symphonies, structurally, were foreshadowed by those of the organ.

The Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is built on a chorale which becomes interwoven with a complex double fugue, the sort of contrapuntal fireworks we would expect in organ improvisation. In the movement’s coda, the chorale theme soars to exhilarating new heights as the first movement’s first theme returns.

Here is the the final coda of Bruckner’s Fifth from a live 1986 performance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by the noted Bruckner interpreter Eugen Jochum. Jochum, who was in ill health and passed away the following year, reportedly conducted the symphony seated, but stood for this final coda, a climax which suggests the majestic power of a large pipe organ:

Here is the complete Fifth Symphony.

  • Find Erwin Horn’s recording of Bruckner organ music at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear five recorded versions of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony Finale’s coda here.

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

cathedrale strasbourg

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels.

This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone soloist and mixed chorus was dedicated to Longfellow, whom Liszt had met six years earlier. It’s set in two sections: an opening prelude, Excelsior (in reference to another Longfellow poem) and The Bells which opens with Lucifer’s furious invocation, “Hasten! Hasten! O ye Spirits!”

The Bells of Strasburg has remained remarkably obscure. It requires large forces and doesn’t fit neatly into the category of opera or sacred music. As in the Faust Symphony, Liszt pushes the harmonic envelope. Wagner heard The Bells just before he started work on the opera Parsifal. His reaction to Liszt’s cantata was luke warm, but elements of The Bells found their way into Parsifal. Listen to the Prelude to Parsifal and then compare its opening with the ascending opening line of The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral:

In the 1880s, Arthur Sullivan wrote his own Longfellow-inspired cantata, The Golden Legend. Listen to an excerpt here.

The Bells of Geneva and Rome

Following my recent Christmas Eve bell post, I started thinking about music influenced by the sound of bell ringing. Rachmaninov’s choral Symphony, The Bellsbased on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and the powerful C-sharp minor preludeThe Bells of Moscow come to mind.

Franz Liszt wrote at least two pieces for piano which suggest bells. Liszt’s atmospheric Ave Maria is nicknamed “The Bells of Rome.” The opening of this piece emerges with a Schubert-like purity.

Here is a performance by Stephen Hough:

Here is the nocturne, The Bells of Geneva, from the first of a set of three Suites for Solo Piano by Liszt. The performance is by Lazar Berman. A caption form Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is included in the score:

I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me

Passion and Fire: Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata

Brahmscdcoversm

 

In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting…How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows! It is true that the passion subsides into quiet mourning in the Adagio and fades away, reconciled, in the finale. But the beating pulse of the earlier sections still reverberates, and pathos remains the determining psychological characteristic of the whole.

That’s how critic Eduard Hanslick described Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99, following the work’s premier in 1886. Hanslick was nineteenth century Vienna’s most powerful music critic and an ardent champion of Brahms’ music. He presided over a politically charged environment in which Vienna was divided into two passionate musical camps: those who supported Brahms versus those who supported Wagner. Hugo Wolf, a devout Wagnerian wrote his own review of the Second Cello Sonata in the Wiener Salonblatt:

What is music, today, what is harmony, what is melody, what is rhythm, what is form, if this tohuwabohu [total chaos] is seriously accepted as music? If, however, Herr Dr Johannes Brahms is set on mystifying his worshippers with this newest work, if he is out to have some fun with their brainless veneration, then that is something else again, and we admire in Herr Brahms the greatest charlatan of this century and of all centuries to come.

Today, it’s the enduring greatness of the music that matters, not the politics. Brahms wrote the Second Cello Sonata near Lake Thun in Switzerland during the summer of 1886. It was a productive summer which also saw the completion of the Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100 and the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101. The Second Cello Sonata was dedicated to Robert Hausmann, who would later premier Brahms’ Double Concerto with violinist Joseph Joachim.

From the opening of the first movement, Brahms’ trademark asymmetrical phrases and other elements of rhythmic complexity keep us feeling off balance. The music evolves and takes shape through intensely concentrated motivic development. There’s also a heroic sense of struggle between the cello and piano. A less than skilled cellist once played this piece with Brahms and complained that she couldn’t hear herself over the thick piano scoring. “You were lucky.” was Brahms’ sarcastic response.

Here is an electrifying live concert recording of Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata featuring American cellist Daniel Gaisford and the late Brazilian pianist and 1985 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist José Feghali:

  1. Allegro vivace 0:00
  2. Adagio affettuoso 9:59
  3. Allegro passionato 17:48
  4. Allegro molto 25:11

Night Traffic

rainy night traffic

There is a significant update to Monday’s post regarding the Hartford Wagner Festival’s plans to use a “virtual orchestra” in performances of the Ring Cycle. On Monday afternoon the Festival announced that performances would be postponed due to the controversy, which resulted in resignations of key members of the company. Although it was not mentioned in the released statement, an apparent lack of financial support may also have played a role. A Kickstarter campaign, initiated on May 30 with the fundraising goal of $25,000, has only resulted in a single $50.00 pledge. To get a sense of the “virtual orchestra,” listen to this sampled version of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings and then compare it with the real thing.

While the “virtual orchestra” has met with resistance in the opera pit, computer processed sounds have led to a rich array of new colors and exciting compositional possibilities for contemporary composers. From amplified rock music to the faint hum of our lights and appliances, the sounds of electricity are all around us. These sounds shape our sensibilities in the way bird songs and bubbling brooks influenced Haydn or Schubert. In pop songs and avant-garde computer compositions, the recording has become elevated to a work of art in its own right. There are obvious drawbacks to the fixed and unchanging nature of a recording, as opposed to the spontaneity of acoustic performance. But acoustic and electric sounds will continue to blend in interesting new ways. In the twenty-first century, complex musical technology ranges from the violin to the computer.

Paul Lansky’s Night Traffic (1990) uses the processed, recorded sounds of cars passing in the night on a four lane highway in New Jersey. For me, the piece hints at an atmosphere of lonely isolation and the dehumanizing nature of modern technology. You may come away with a completely different feeling. As you listen, consider the sense of motion and edgy, metallic tonal colors. Read about the background of the piece here. Lansky offers this description of Night Traffic:

There is a kind of randomness, violence, and rhythmic intensity (and great Doppler shifts!) which draw upon and excite all sorts of musical perceptions.

Find on iTunes

Retiring last month, Paul Lansky was a longtime member of Princeton University’s composition faculty. Recently, his music has shifted from computers, which he has described as “a kind of aural camera in the world”, to acoustic instruments. His 1973 tape piece, mild und leiseinspired by Wagner’s Tristan chordwas quoted in the Radiohead song, Idioteque.

Virtual Wagner: Worth the Price of Admission?

violin playing robotA firestorm of controversy has erupted surrounding plans by the Hartford Wagner Festival to perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a digital “virtual orchestra.” The festival’s founder, Charles M. Goldstein, has entered sampled sounds of orchestral instruments into a musical software program, which will be played using 24 speakers in the pit. The sounds were provided by a company called the Vienna Symphonic Library. The first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold, is scheduled for August. In 2004 the Opera Company of Brooklyn attempted a similar performance with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but was forced to cancel amid protest. In response to criticism, Hartford Wagner Festival, which should not be confused with Hartford Opera Theater, put out this statement.

If the production goes on as planned, Hartford audiences will pay around $100.00 a ticket for a less-than-live experience. With so many excellent, well mixed recordings available, featuring experienced singers as opposed to this production’s young cast, it’s hard to understand why patrons wouldn’t instead opt for their home entertainment system. Why get in your car and pay for parking when you can listen to recorded music through speakers in the comfort of your own home?

Of course, a recording is no replacement for a real live performance. We continue to value live performances because of the power, presence and immediacy of the sound and the unpredictable excitement of (in the case of Wagner) a hundred or more musicians spontaneously reacting to each other and to the moment. Each performance is a unique event, which will never occur exactly the same way again. Live performance isn’t possible without the human element. The way the horn player shapes and colors a musical line feeds the drama onstage and influences and inspires the singers who, in turn, inspire the orchestra.

A Wagner Festival without an orchestra is all the more ironic because Wagner wrote “symphonic” operas, rooted in orchestral color. In his essays, Wagner described his philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, -a blending of many art forms into one. This seems far removed from the kind of bizarre operatic karaoke dreamed up in Hartford. Goldstein points out that smaller companies often put on these operas using two pianos in the pit. That approach might work if you’re presenting The Fantasticks, but in the case of Wagner, if you aren’t prepared to invest in a real, live orchestra, why bother?

It’s hard to imagine the Hartford performances being anything but cold, dead and soulless. Even if audience members delude themselves into thinking they can’t tell the difference between a virtual string section and a real one, they will still feel the difference on a subconscious level. In the end, music is about feeling rather than analyzing. Let’s hope there are no young people in the audience looking for their first taste of opera. At a time when we should be celebrating and promoting the excitement of live performance, the Hartford Wagner Festival is shamefully and fraudulently devaluing a great art form.

Join the Facebook group, Musicians Against Hartford Wagner Festival here.

Contact the Hartford Wagner Festival directly here.

UPDATE: June 16, 2:00 pm ET. The Hartford Wagner Festival has just released a statement announcing that it is postponing the Das Rheingold performance.

Becoming one with E-flat major

The expansive opening of Das Rheingold starts with a deep rumble and slowly develops on a single E-flat major chord, hinting at the epic proportions of what is to come. One of opera’s most dramatic preludes, this is music which forces us to confront the power of color and pure sound, with all of the rich overtones which can only be created by an orchestra. Here is a Bayreuth performance conducted by Pierre Boulez: