Saturday, June 18, 2011

Digital Concert Hall; Review of Eötvös conducting his new Cello Concerto Grosso

Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a program transmitted through the Digital Concert Hall that centered on the third performance of his new Cello Concerto Grosso, which was premiered by the orchestra on June 16. The concerto was jointly commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, Tonhalle Zürich, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

The concerto is a solid 26-minute work in three movements that run together without pause. Miklós Perényi joined the orchestra as cello soloist.

Frequently playful, the opening movement begins in a conversational modality with Perényi decorating the first three notes of a D-major scale. Strong punctuation by the ensemble across a wide color spectrum accompanied each gesture from the soloist which created the impression of building a conversation.The first movement was constructed from a relatively small amount of material given how diverse the gestures sounded. Frenzied interludes alternated with jazzy gestures. But it was the sheer diversity of articulations that created energy, and the Berliner Philharmoniker is the perfect machine to make these details come across vibrantly.

The second movement opened with a gesture in two-note segments that that brought to mind the interval games in late Beethoven. This movement gave way to a central march that mixed tasty sarcasm with irreverent grooving. It ended with a lovely and rarefied dialog between solo horns and the solo cello in a texture that was not parallel to the opening of the movement, but a pleasantly surprising detour within earshot of it.

The third movement opened with a development of earlier material that broke into bubbly dance music. It ended with a series of cadenzas punctuated by brief dance interjections and ended with a sharp clap from the percussionists.

This was a well constructed concerto full of vibrant humor and clever writing. It will be a pleasure to hear this piece again as it enters the archives of the digital concert hall.

After intermission we heard the Four Russian Peasant Songs by Stravinsky in the 1954 edition that includes parts for four horns. This work was an effective palette cleanser with the pure rustic sound of the SSA choir and the wacky but charming horn lines that snake through this arrangement.

Ferruccio Furlanetto joined the orchestra as soloist in the Coronation Scene and Death Scene from Boris Godunov. They played the original Mussorgsky scoring, not the Rimsky version, and Furlanetto amazed everyone with how quickly he could capture the intensity of these moments from deep within a labyrinthine opera. He sang the death scene with a strength that could still embrace a sense of prayer, and an emotion on the very edge of tears. Furlanetto was given a thunderous ovation on each appearance after the performance.

It was also Mussorgsky that opened this event; St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. The orchestra sounded great, particularly at the close of the movement which creates the impression of sunrise when it is played with sensitivity. The production featured several clever camera angles, one that caught both the oboe and bassoon together as they played together in octaves in d minor at the poco più sostenuto, and there was a wonderful angle on the tolling of the bell during the coda--a sound that mixed beautifully with the low flute and cello harmonics. Too many performances toll the bell without regard for the bell's context.

While each work was of interest on this program the overall sequence from one to the next lacked the insights I have come to associate with programming for the Berliner Philharmoniker. Perhaps if Eötvös had chosen the 1867 Mussorgsky version of Bare Mountain--or even the opera scene since he had the chorus--the larger harmonies of one work moving to the next might have had even more zip.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Lullaby and Sweet Consolation; Brahms, Op. 117 No. 1

Lullabies are as much for those who sing them as for those who will sleep.

Brahms is known for a lullaby; the Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht, Op. 49, No. 4, but the first intermezzo of the Op. 117 collection is a lullaby every bit as entrancing. It is a song without words, written for piano alone. Sort of.

Brahms prefaced his score with a poetic epigraph derived from "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament" in Herder's Volkslieder:

Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und Schön! (Sleep soft my child, sleep soft and lovely!)
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn. (I feel sadness when you weep)

The translation upon which Brahms based his epigraph altered the original which read: Baloo, my boy, lie still and sleep...It grieves me sore to hear thee weep... If thou'lt be silent I'll be glad...Thy moaning makes my heart full sad...Baloo, my boy, thy mother's joy...Thy father bred me great annoy...Baloo, baloo, baloo, baloo...baloo, baloo, lu-li-li-lu.

Hélène Grimaud has a deep understanding of the poetry in this music. She allows the tune to rock gently between the octaves in the first phrase, pulling the lines apart in richness and then weaving them back toward a cadence.

All three works in this opus balance parallel phrases. They are all songs that speak in echos. And after the parallel phrase of this lullaby a quiet but jarring passage in octaves [1:10], senza pedal, takes us to a darker place in the tonic minor.

The central section, marked Più Adagio [1:32], moves in syncopation. We hear a rhythmic pattern: long-long-short pull against our sense of the meter. It is as obsessive as quiet chanting. The return of the lullaby [2:50] is decorated with glorious surprises characteristic of Brahms.

When those we love need consolation we instinctively think of lullabies. When we need consolation it is waiting here, in E-flat major.

Brahms and the Joy of Noticing; Op. 117 No. 2

It can be a revelation to turn off auto-pilot. The most familiar and common journeys, places we go everyday, are colorful. Brahms filled the intermezzo Op. 117 No. 2 with that particular joy of noticing.

The guideposts speak of familiar ways. It is music in B-flat minor in two parallel strophes that finds its way to D-flat major just as it should. Ordinary, perhaps. But this ordinary journey is marked by heightened observation, brought out poetically in this recording:

The opening gesture consists of two falling ripple-figures in the right-hand answered by a rising figure played by the left-hand which darts into position then darts back to play the bass. The chords oscillate in first inversion and then suddenly enter the cycle of fifths in rich jazz-like sonorities. The dominant is reached [0:26] but is immediately deflected toward a half-diminished seventh. Every element speaks of the successive inspiration of noticing.

A parallel phrase begins and follows the same script, until it deflects the music into D-flat major. The two phrases in D-flat [1:25]are a sanctuary, with gestures that speak of welcoming. It becomes dance.

We are torn away from the solitude of dancing by a developmental section [2:28]. The development is about reflections between the hands.
We travel back again at [3:20]. Again we hear things differently. The parallel phrase [3:51] follows the same script but now deflects the music toward B-flat major.

The two phrases in B-flat major [4:28] are less a sanctuary; they speak of sadness in the major. The music stills by seeking, but not finding dance. It is nothing ordinary.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moving with an Intermezzo; Brahms Op. 117 no. 3

Brahms had a life-long fascination with five-bar phrases. Odd numbered phrase lengths challenge the symmetry of our bodies. They create a cognitive collision between brain and body as the onset of a new phrase forces what was left to become right, and vice versa.

The Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 3 is a work that develops this physical concept.

Divide each measure into halves as you count (1-and, 2-and, etc) and you will hear the second phrase beginning just after the fifth measure at [0:19]. Imagine a physical oscillation in each measure of the five-bar phrase: left, right, left, right, left... This first phrase is marked to be played without pedal, sotto voce; the sound of whispered truths.

What follows in the second phrase is not a repetition, but an expansion as the physical oscillation that continues from the first phrase is now cast on the right-side: right, left, right, left, right...

It is as if one phrase is driven from the one hemisphere of the brain and the complementary phrase from the other. This oscillation saturates many levels of this work, but is structural to the organization of the entire first section where phrase couples alternate: AA, BB, AA, BB, before breaking down (poco più lento) with a single five-bar A-phrase stretched to the point of snapping.

(The timings of each section: A[0:05] A[0:19], B[0:30] B[0:42], A[0:53] A[1:06], B[1:18] B[1:29], and the final A at [1:41])

It is a delight to hear the color shift instantly from C-sharp minor to A major at the Più mosso ed espressivo. The paired five-bar phrases continue uninterrupted but surface syncopation makes them much more of a challenge to count.

(Timings for the first of each paired section in the Più mosso ed espressivo: [2:00 CC], [2:18 CC], [2:34 DD], [2:52 CC], [3:08 DD] [3:27 CC])

A strange culmination takes place at [4:47]. The music hovers. Two sequences take us away from the expected phrasing. This moment of reckoning is marked by a pause between sequences.

In a wonderful reharmonization [4:16] the opening tune is rephrased in 5+6. The paired B phrases follow as before and the work closes with a più lento that frames the single phrase from [1:41] in a stretched six-phrase.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Vitamin C(hopin); The G Major Prelude

The Prelude in G major, from op 28, is a joining of worlds. The first is a foundation made from figuration that is agile and athletic; precise as an escapement wheel. In opposition, the world above is lyrical music that floats and lingers:

Pops and crackles charm in this 1926 recording by Alfred Cortot, etched below them is lyrical playing that floats and lingers.

Cortot brings the first pitch (D) of the right hand from almost nothing. The phrase emerges shaped in a long arc with a strangely quieted but still playful close. The restatement [0:17] opens with the same shape but remains full-throated at the cadence to connect to the final phrase, which begins in the subdominant at [0:29]. Both hands sweep in waves derived from foundational figuration as the prelude ends. "It requires," wrote James Huneker, "a light hand and nimble fingers."

Franz Liszt imagined specific programs for each of the op. 28 preludes. He heard the joining of worlds in this prelude as a visitation; "a guardian angel hovers unsteadily through the open window over a sleeping infant, whispering in its ears the words of Heine’s immortal poem, "Du Bist Wie Eine Blume" (You are like a flower). At the conclusion, the angel vanishes."

Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower)
So hold und schön und rein; (So pleasing, fair and pure)
Ich schau' dich an, (I gaze upon you)
Und Wehmut schleicht mir ins Herz hinein. (and sorrow fills my heart)
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände (it seems as if my hands)
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt', (upon your head in a blessing)
Betend, daß Gott dich erhalte (are a prayer that God preserves you)
So rein und schön und hold, (So fair and pure, and pleasing).

Set by hundreds of composers, we know this poem most readily from the setting by Schumann in Myrthen, Op. 25, No. 24.

Pops and crackles, nimble fingers, a poem as whispered background, a guardian angel, and Cortot playing in 1926--a joining of worlds in G major.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Digital Concert Hall; Review of Jurowski conducting Stravinsky and Mahler

Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a kaleidoscopic program that sparkled with the colors of the unfamiliar.

The event, transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, opened with Stravinsky's revisioning of the Bach Chorale variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her," written in 1956.

The work is scored without violins and cellos, so Jurowski had the female members of the chorus sit in the chairs left and right of the conducting podium. The men were arranged behind the ensemble stage right, which made for a powerful motion of sound, a canonic debate, as they interacted with the female voices across the stage during the canon in inversion at the 9th in the final variation. The chorus sang while seated and used an early music sound that was mostly non-vibrato. They produced a consistently clever and engaging sonority.

Jurowski conducts with minimal motions. He projects a relaxed confidence that helped create a warm sound during a piece with the intellectual acrobatics of both Bach and Stravinsky intertwined.

The first half ended with Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles.

Jurowski imagined a soundworld that is slower than often played, but where ricocheted rhythms and echoed entrances accumulated in impact as the work progressed to through the "Rex Tremendae." The texture of the "Libera Me" was perfectly balanced with the four choral soloists blending with the four muted horns. The parlando choral part was given submerged in the background like a refracted summation of echos and ricochets.

After intermission we heard Das klagende Lied, the massive early work of Gustav Mahler, given in its three-movement format as presented in the 1997 Gustav Mahler Edition. During intermission, Chorus Master extraordinaire Simon Halsey explained that significant work was done to rethink vocal allocations in this sprawling early work that Halsey described as "fabulously impractical."

The changes were noticeable, and sometimes surprising, but they helped to create a convincing sound. Halsey should make these eloquent and carefully considered alternatives available in an amended performing edition.

A list of memorable passages in this performance would need to include the nightingale interlude in the first movement sung with sweet sound and piercing clarity by soprano Christine Schäfer. It would also include the fabulous boy-sopranos in both the second and third movements, and the richly overplayed quality of off-stage music as it began to mix with sounds from the orchestra during the third movement.

From the standpoint of production, I would have liked to see more of Jurowski during the Mahler. From a visual standpoint we often got lost within the shifting ensembles and soloists and missed the extremely varied left-hand gestures and eye-cues that make Jurowski's specific impact on music easier to understand.

This performance of Das klagende Lied is something of which to be proud. It will be its own exclamation point in the Mahler cycle that will be completed next season by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review of LA Phil Live in HD; Brahms at the Cinema

The Los Angeles Philharmonic finished the third of its three live broadcasts into theaters across America and Canada with an unusual program of late Brahms--the Double Concerto paired with the fourth symphony. This was an event where solid and inspired musicianship was contrasted with an awkward presentation that was a step back from either of the two earlier broadcasts.

First the music. Cellist Gautier Capuçon and his older brother, violinist Renaud Capuçon joined the orchestra as soloists in the Double Concerto. They lit up the place.

They have the kind of ensemble that you could only acquire by growing up together, and this was of value in a work where the soloists are often called upon to finish one another's thoughts. But what struck me as I listened was the differences in artistic personality between these two siblings. Gautier plays with a kind of reckless abandon, fierce and always on the edge. Renaud seeks the Apollonian, as at that wonderful passage in the recapitulation where he played the famous "Viotti" theme in a sweet and crystalline A major.

They returned for an encore--the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia--which they played with breathtaking precision. Though this work is commonly used as a encore after the double concerto, in this case it allowed us to anticipate the final movement of the Brahms fourth in advance.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel took a very classical approach to the opening two movements of the fourth symphony with serene gestures and delicate balances. He led the shaping into the coda and then let us hear "Brahms Unbound."

During the intermission there was a segment with rehearsal footage. The orchestra was working on the second movement where the solo horn restates the opening motive 8-bars after rehearsal [A]. Dudamel stopped the ensemble several time looking for the best sound of the pizzicato strings that support the texture. He wanted the notes to sing. Finally he asked them for "pizzicato sostenuto." There was a warmer and more human sound that opened up when they played the passage.

It was a great insight into the way Dudamel rehearses. I think that the strings could have used the concept for all the pizz playing in this movement--it would have charged the support system for the oscillating tunes that seduce us throughout the movement.

The third movement marked a turning point in Dudamel's conception of the symphony. From here to the end he pulled it out of the box.

The fourth movement held together as an inspired unfolding, and the famous flute solo in the 12th variation was spellbinding. The trombone chorale that concludes this section set in 3/2 meter was also attractive, and this central world, where Brahms reveals a deeply personal outlook, was moving.

Great as the music was in this event, the production was often lacking.

I am a fan of John Lithgow, but wow, he was awkward when he wasn't obtrusive. His dialog was a series of trite interjections. When the Capuçon brothers returned from their encore he said, "Too bad you couldn't have played it faster, huh, huh, huh." Yeah, good one. We didn't see Lithgow trip on Gautier's endpin but Lithgow told us about it anyway. He also asked Renaud if he could touch his violin. Then he did. Really.

The production has continued its idea of reading text messages from selected viewers and addressing them to these great musicians. Banal, again. This segment is standing proof that just because something is technologically possible doesn't mean it is a good idea.

La Phil's President and CEO Deborah Borda was interviewed. She announced "big plans for the future" of these broadcasts, but had no details. None. Here we were, assembled--an audience that has purchased tickets and attended. It was a mistake to not make at least some announcement of what the new season would bring. A segment like this was of no use. None. Give us more time in orchestral rehearsal; give us more conversation with Dudamel about the music.

Let's hope there is an announcement about the new season in the near future. Let's hope that the productions are no longer this tedious. With music this great, anything less is unfair.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review of Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall; Rattle conducts Mahler 6 and Berg 3 Pieces

Mahler's sixth symphony is a work that speaks clearly to the 21st century. It is music of juxtapositions, of maximums, complexities, and tensions all held together by crazy love. Simon Rattle led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance of Mahler 6 transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall that shaped the seemingly irreconcilable.

There was a moment in the exposition of the first movement where "Alma's Theme," in F major slides from its complex presentation into a gentle closing powered by earthy triplet fifths. Rattle allowed a slight hesitation leading into this passage, giving the music a chance to breathe. Again after the lyrical violin phrase that greeted us there was another slight hesitation. The music was able to delay the inevitable juxtaposition of marching to which it was already committed.

The same section was not identical during the repeat --and this subtle change pointed the music toward the military episode the opened the development. These microscopic details may seem invisible in a symphony that sprawls. But it is the accumulation of details that make this music scream.

Rattle performed the inner movements in the Andante/Scherzo ordering. He paused to allow an orchestral tuning before the scherzo and then brought the finale attaca. The finale explored the controlled and cerebral side of the spectrum with effective outbursts--like reading Schopenhauer during a lightening storm.

Rattle did not give away the terrifying ending of this work with a huge gesture and you could feel the audience jump even though most of their reaction was off-camera.

Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra (Drei Orchesterstücke) Op. 6 opened the program. The orchestra focused the elegant and sophisticated side of this music, sanding and smoothing away the wildness with which it is often performed.

There was a terrific balancing at the end of the second movement where the unusual timbre massed oboes, solo violins, massed clarinets, and four piccolos echoed one another and then froze in a mist of trills to create a sonority that was particularly crisp and tasty.

There is a passage at the end of the third movement where Berg seems to invent the sound world of Christopher Rouse. The Berliner Philharmoniker played the ending in relaxed and jazzy colors that became gradually edgy to prepare one of the great symphonic closes.

Berg and Mahler knew one another, and these two works communicated in sonic friendship.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Meditation on June by Tchaikovsky, Nicholas Breton, and Lev Oborin

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

For the month of June Tchaikovsky wrote the famous Barcarolle, a tune that has survived innumerable transcriptions with the elegant glide of its conversational grace.

Lev Oborin (1907-1974) was known for his illustrious collaborations with David Oistrakh, and for his tireless work with most of the great Soviet composers of the 20th century. Oborin shows us the how to enjoy the transitional interludes and the imaginative ending of June.

At [0:35] the sweeping melody that opens the movement has comes to a self-contained close.  As it does, the camera angle suddenly shifts to reveal Oborin's hands. The playful scale-figure is derived directly from the opening tune, but its rising energy is countered by a falling bass line, and by an F that remains ringing--attracting us with the irrational logic of June. 

The English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) also caught the interludes of June in his book "The Twelve Moneths."

"It is now June," wrote Breton, "and the hay-makers are mustered to make an army for the field...Now doth the broad Oke comfort the weary Laborer, while under his shady Boughes he sits singing to his bread and cheese."

The central section of June becomes playful [1:49]. It breaks into the syncopated major, right on the edge of dancing, until it finally gives in to dance [2:09]. "The little lads make pipes of the straw," wrote Breton, "and they that cannot dance, will yet bee hopping."

After the return of the opening section there is one surprise left in June; an ethereal codetta. The camera angle changes again to reveal that Oborin cannot help but to show how cool this passage is in the subtlest lift of his head. This floating passage is like the "coole winds" of June that Breton knew.

"The Ayre now groweth somewhat warm," wrote Breton, "and the coole winds are very comfortable: the Sayler now makes merry passage, and the nimble Footman runnes with pleasure: In briefe, I thus conclude, I hold it a sweet season, the sense perfume, and the spirits comfort. Farewell."
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...