Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Returning to Tanglewood – A Sibelius weekend

It really was an event, a rehearsal for that evening's concert at Tanglewood. The Boston Symphony players are clearly happy people doing what few of us can imagine doing, and the music they are making is a tradition involving people from all over the world coming to Tanglewood, usually knowing the music ahead of time and having certain expectations about what they might hear. Again, as last year, the weather was warm and wonderful. The program was to consist of pieces entirely by the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) .

John Storgårds (a 48 year old Finnish conductor for the music of The Finnish composer) made his début at Tanglewood in fact with this particular open to the public rehearsal. One is never guaranteed a complete play-through of any of the pieces on the programme for the evening performance, though you usually get most of them.

Let's begin with Valse triste Op. 44 composed in 1903 (when the composer was 38 years old) as music for a play about Death. How fast do you usually hear this piece played? It's probably too fast. This is fantasy music about an old woman dancing with Death. It has to sound weary and tired at the beginning and Storgårds gets the phenomenal talent of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to transmit the inevitable gloom and darkness of this piece in a way seldom heard. But we didn't get to hear the whole thing. (Incidentally I have a piano transcription of this piece and I think I might actually try learning it.)

Storgårds was also not very interested in Finlandia Op. 26 composed in 1899 (when the composer was 34) but we did get to hear the terrifically rousing end of it with the powerful brass of the BSO. We loved hearing this from half the distance of our seating last year, it was really loud.

Sibelius was adept at using brass choirs to create landscapes in sound, as backdrops with the low registers in musical instruments preferred. This creates a weight and might to the sound, a coldness and density too, like snowcapped mountains seen along a horizon under a crisp clear sky. The BSO's brass are what I think of as a golden sound. Storgårds' rehearsal of Sibelius' Symphony #5 in E Flat Op. 82 composed between 1915 and 1919 (Sibelius was 54 years old in 1919) seemed to be about layers, the strings, the woodwind parts, always wonderfully written by Sibelius, and then of course the brass. This is music that has always seemed to me about forces of Nature more than anything to do with humanity specifically. There are here and there some folksy elements, but this is stunningly transcendent music. Is it really cold music or is that a mere useless canard associated with Sibelius' ethnic associations? We didn't think so. Dark? Yes, certainly some of it is quite dark, though of course there are exceptions, especially in his writing for solo woodwinds as they appear in many of his symphonies. Sibelius style remains unique and enigmatic. Things sort of swerve around in terms of tonal centres, they even overlap each other deliberately. No, the orchestra isn't playing wrong notes. Sibelius is asking us to hear things differently, almost visually, and in terms including the vantage points of jumping fish in magic pools or of birds flying through seamless air. I've no doubt that Storgårds more official début at Tanglewood featuring this same programme will be noteworthy due to his interpretation of this symphony.

Sibelius' Violin Concerto in d Op. 47, written when the composer was 38 or 40, during the same period as Valse triste, was played through. It turns out that a lot of the shmalz in this work is based on Sibelius failure to satisfy his own personal desire to become a great concert violinist, which was not fated to be because as he came to understand it, he lacked both the physical coordination and the psychological aptitude. "It was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late," he said. There are a lot of tear jerking parts to this one, but is this really only the intensity borne of not being able to become a great violinist? We're asked to consider the depths of emotional pain due to an unfulfilled lifelong dream that remained unrealised. The music seems too intense for something like that, but many things are certainly possible.

The violinist Nikolaj Znaider who played this very soloistic violin concerto has a similar background to that of the conductor, but the conductor, Storgårds, seemed to present him to the orchestra, as well as the audience, as if to say, “listen to him do this one, he'll amaze you.” Znaider's style was closer to Jasha Heifitz or Zino Francescatti, a sort of hot spun gold sound. I appreciated being able to hear clearly the unusual angular phrasing in the violin lines without the usual scraping and scratching of the really heavy bowers that swash-buckle the violin concert stage these days. The violin Znaider played was one that had been Fritz Kreisler's, a Guernari del Jesu violin from the 1740's or 271 years or so ago. Can one imagine it? This violinist is hot stuff! Simply stunning! 
Some time later, returning to my place, I entertained my guest with recordings of Sibelius' symphonies 4 through 7, three my friend had never heard before. Later when discussing what we'd experienced all weekend, we began asking seriously whether Sibelius was putting us on, whether in fact he had indeed had the last laugh, dared to compose his really “out of the box” music and after all the joke was on us. As was the case with Bartók's music, weren't we being asked to follow the composer into some curious if not questionable territories? There are lurid outcries in Sibelius' 4th, strange combinations in his 5th with that priceless and frankly silly conclusion, there is mastery in his 6th, probably my overall favourite among Sibelius symphonies, but there is everything the others had plus a deep inconsolable ache in the 7th, his last symphony.  Sibelius was probably right to think it inadvisable to put out anything after that unless he could write something better. He has in fact been criticized for quitting before he was dead, which now seems a little idiotic, when in fact he wrote his last symphony at the age of 59 after at least three decades of hard work (and if you think musical composition isn't hard work for most who dare attempt it, think again!). Isn't 30 years of it long enough? Even if you or I are the only people still listening, fortunately not the case, would anything have justified saying more than this 7th symphony does so well about the heroism and yet the tireless longing of the human race for something more, something better? 

Here's what Sibelius looked like in 1939, at the age of 74, making a rare appearance a year earlier conducting his Andante Festivo (written originally for string quartet in 1922), and he still had 17 more years to live, but he wouldn't be caring much about music by then and didn't like talking about it much after consigning many papers and who knows how many unfinished compositions to the flames in 1945 when he was 80 years old and still had 11 more years to live. 

We recall to general public awareness in this blog from time to time the many disparities between composers, for instance a Mozart who composes virtually his entire greatness within ten years, while a Sibelius is granted much more time. We get two different kinds of music as well. 

I could have put anything or nothing to listen to in this entry. The Boston Symphony Orchestra played or rehearsed great parts of the 5th at Tanglewood, but have a serious listen to this, Sibelius' last symphony, written near the end of his career as a composer:

Herbert von Karajan's performance still holds up reasonably well. This is a complete four movement romantic symphony deliberately smashed into one titanic movement comprising everything in the usual sequence one usually expects in the themes and moods in what I really think is one of the unsung gems of the entire symphonic repertoire, this final great symphony of Jean Sibelius, completed in 1924 is.in a way a cousin to Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony written exactly 100 years ago this year, though it took longer for Deryck Cooke to finish and even longer to gain acceptance. I guess it makes a difference when the composer is granted time to live long enough to retire from music and see his works gain status in the world's orchestral repertoire independent of himself. But when I consider the music of the composers of 100 years ago I often ask myself just how much the audiences are getting out of what in most cases is more emotionally sophisticated than momentary plays on our quick responses to sound impressions, note sequences suggesting susceptible mood changes, plus all the technique involved in getting it to sound as intended which is itself always surprising, thrilling or simply astounding.

All in all, this weekend offered us a good chance to return to Tanglewood (a place we still regard as sacred ground) and to have another glimpse at the music of Jean Sibelius, one of our favourite composers of all time.

PS: For the interested, this brief interview concerning Sibelius' symphonies as a project of the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, who is one of my favorite conductors at this point in time.  He seems to say that the orchestra had been unfamiliar with this music, but hadn't
Herbert von Karajan done the Sibelius cycle with this orchestra?  That would seem to have been ancient history.  Rattle reports an excellent response to his re-introduction to this music.  We earnestly look forward to the fruits of this collaboration.  Rattle said that the orchestra regarded Sibelius as one of the six greatest symphonists of all time (I can guess who some of the others might be).  I think it's a fair assessment to consider Sibelius' contributions to symphonic literature among the very greatest of all time.  


Friday, July 15, 2011

York Bowen – The English Rachmaninoff

There were a few loose ends to tie up from my last visit to New York. One concerned a composer, previously unknown to me; York Bowen (1884-1961), a composer of some 155 works, a pianist with vast talents, an accomplished musician on many fronts. The first time I had any opportunity to hear anything by Bowen was from an English pianist named Simon I met while upstairs at Beethoven's in New York. Simon was playing on a Hailun HG 198 grand  to good advantage, as it responded to everything he tried on it with apparent ease.

Of York Bowen's music, it would in some cases cause you to think it's perhaps something by Rachmaninoff you haven't heard yet, as Rachmaninoff wrote a great deal of music most people haven't heard yet, myself included. But it isn't; there's also some scent of Arnold Bax (1883-1953), or of an even a more obscure English or Irish composer, as there were some a hundred years ago or so, as the English and Irish woke up from their cultural delusion about the value of making music, having left it to foreigners for as long as 200 years.

For a first taste of it, a comparatively late work, written in 1957, Bowen's Toccata Op, 155, which is apparently quite popular among aspiring virtuoso pianists because it's obviously quite difficult to play. One realizes as a pianist that the most complex strings of notes in this piece are only a series of connected shorter movements of fingers, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, waist and legs, with appropriate breathing. For the listener, there is much that can be gained from being able to listen to several versions of the same piece, which is how one gets to “know” or at least recognize a piece of music. For those who listen, but do not play a musical instrument, you can imagine just what is required for a pianist to “learn” a piece of music well enough to play it, whether pianists decide to read from the music as they play or do it completely from memory (as each one must decide how best to pull off the best performance they are comfortable with). As for musical style, there is much emulation of Ravel and Debussy, perhaps even of Prokofiev.

So here are examples of this piece:

An apparent piano virtuoso in the making (following a long tradition of promoting child prodigies, for the good or ill it does to music), this young lady certainly knocks out all this composition's contours very nicely. This superb performance should serve to challenge all of us. (By the way, her teacher, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, has a long association with the Newport Music Festival, where he has acquitted himself very nicely to many great masterpieces of the Classical and Romantic – still don't like the terms – piano repertoire, so I am not surprised this young lady played this well.)

This seems a bit more of a studied performance, very clear definite phrasing. I do not know who Hojoon is, but he plays this very well indeed.

Yet another version, notice how smooth she has made all the phrases you might have thought of as pointed, while listening to the previous versions.

Obviously interest in this composer should be on the increase because those of us around the world who are interested in this art form with the passion accorded to a life's work, a religious understanding or something perhaps even deeper, and Bowen left a great many pieces of music, large scale works, which have not received the attention they deserve. But as Mahler said of his own works, “my time will come,” so does this apply to the largely undiscovered work of York Bowen, the English Rachmaninoff.