Friday, October 12, 2012

Symphonic Smörgåsbord: Berwald, Stenhammar and Nielsen

A Smörgåsbord similar to the ones my Swedish grandfather used to lay out for the family every Christmas Eve.

This season, the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert's direction embarks on a multi-year project to perform and record the works of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). 

Read the excellent review the first concert received here.

Although I had passing acquaintance with this music, I decided to review Nielson's symphonies again and immediately heard some things which reminded me of music by other Scandinavian composers who had been influences on Nielsen, some acknowledged by him. What I've attempted to do here is assemble something of a musical smörgåsbord for your delectation, education and entertainment. In the process, I hope to make a few points unmistakably clear:

1. There really are composers of past epochs, who despite exceptional talent, rarely had their works performed because they were considered “derivative” or not original enough. In art generally the drive for originality has often led to absurd extremes. In music, the cult of originality for its own sake alas is a dead end road which leads to as many pointless destinations as adapting the banal and boring to rote formal manipulation or system. But given the exceptional quality of today's orchestral musicians, in particular their freedom from former traditions and manners of playing their instruments or of preferences or concentrations on certain styles of music, and that the musical world and audiences are changing enough to become more venturesome, we fully expect to see some of these presently neglected or unfamiliar gems surfaced and given a new life in a hopefully less prejudiced environment.

2. There is an artistic detachment, both emotional and technical, evident in much of the music I want to present here. While these composers are routinely classed among the romantics (a term as we have seen is directly related to fictional literature), and indeed they composed from the 1840's into the 1920's, covering the entire romantic period, none of them are participating in the apparently groundbreaking and revolutionary movements that engrossed many of the more familiar romantic composers. Almost despite the allures of romanticism, these composers are all in one way or another instead the stylistic descendents of the patriarchs of the classical symphony (the First Vienna School); Haydn and Schubert in particular, with notable steals, where appropriate, from Beethoven and very occasionally from Mozart.

3. I think it would be a mistake to regard the work of these composers, as Scandinavian or Nordic in style or feeling or having anything much to do with Denmark or Sweden. They were born there and may have plied their craft as composers in their homelands, but each of them is very much going along with the eclectic nature of Scandinavian culture as it has been, extending back for a thousand years at least. I want to suggest that these composers are themselves guests at a European continental musical smörgåsbord at which they pick and choose elements which they will use in a variety of often ingenious, clever and even humorous juxtapositions not to be found among the continental romantics. Since their intention is to maintain their emotional separateness, rather than involve themselves directly or personally with their music, none of it is autobiographical to any significant degree. First and foremost they intend an entertainment that is formalized in the familiar form of a symphony, but that takes a detached position regarding mood and explores aspects of the sound of choirs of instruments within the orchestra seldom heard in the symphonies of others. Their music creates spaces, or suggestions of physical energy and movement of various kinds, as musical abstractions. I would even guess that while some of it sounds easy enough, a lot of it is probably more difficult than the standard repertoire. 
Franz Berwald

So let's begin with Franz Berwald (1796-1868) [BEAR-valdt], the first great Swedish composer of any note, whose life covers that of Schubert, except that Berwald lived forty years longer. He came of a musical family and wrote all four of his symphonies within four years from his arrival in Vienna in 1841. So he wrote them in his late forties and in Vienna and they may be rightly regarded as a kind of set of souvenirs. Each of them lasts around half an hour. They are structurally tight, feature some techniques borrowed form the classical composers, specifically the writing for woodwind choirs alternating with running themes in octaves in the strings, punctuated by often quite astounding brass part writing and extensive use of tympani.

And in these symphonies we hear Berwald's contribution to what the other composers would also follow; the use of far wider ranges of possible chord and key progressions, leading the listener to wonder what difference a starting or ending key may matter or whether a theme really needs to be memorable as much as to project the right mood required by the composer to elicit the particular intellectual or sensual effect on the listener, again with that overall sense of reserve and detachment from all of it.

Symphony #1 in g minor "Sinfonie Sérieuse"

I. Allegro con energia
II. Adagio maestoso
III. Stretto
IV. Finale. Adagio - Allegro molto

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Performed superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu
Berwald's Sinfonie Sérieuse was premiered on December 2, 1843, in Stockholm, conducted by his cousin, Johan Fredrik Berwald. The Berwalds were a musical family in Sweden going back many generations. But this only performance, it was said, was not very good. I hardly think considering the intricacies in the music that it could have been. From the start, Berwald's style seems ... peculiar, until one begins to hear it through a lens of proper detachment. The performance didn't help Berwald and it was the only one of his symphonies to be performed during his lifetime. Why are we not surprised? He's clearly no Beethoven. But does that mean his work is no good? Sometimes time seems required. It's also required of the players that they be both precise and dispassionate; play exactly what the music says at exactly the required volume, etc.

Berwald spent years in Berlin and Vienna, and he wrote in those places outside his native Stockholm, so there's nothing particularly Swedish intended. It's comparable to the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but Berwald is already stretching the envelope.

Besides detachment Berwald is a bit of a wise-acre, you'll hear all kinds of things. This is also supposed to be a minor key symphony, but that's ambiguous nearly at all times and the movement ends on a triumphant major and it doesn't seem to matter whether the final key is even related to the key in which the piece began.

Symphony #2 in D-Major "Sinfonie Capricieuse" 
I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro assai

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tenor trombone, 2 bass trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

This one has a brief vaguely Haydnesque introduction, then the pranks begin. You'll begin to ask yourself whether he doesn't intend his audiences to laugh out loud. These composers are I believe intended in part to be taken as pranksters and I don't see why anyone wouldn't chuckle at a lot of what Berwald has devised to go on in this work. I even hear phrases that remind me of Ives' first symphony. Much of what Berwald does can be called zany. If you're too serious, you'll probably just blow it off as really not all that good, and in so doing miss half the fun. Also notice that when Berwald, and later the others too as we get to them, are not overly fond of an extended ending to a movement; when it's done, it's done. 

Symphony #3 in C-Major "Sinfonie Singulière"

I. Allegro fuocoso in C major
II. Adagio - Scherzo (Allegro assai) - Adagio (in G major)
III. Finale: Presto in C minor

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

Widely regarded as the best of the lot, there are things in this symphony that will seem startling, especially where he allows a theme to slide through a series of unpredicted progressions. One wonders whether anyone would have really understood the cleverness of many of his little episodic creations whether they be listeners or members of the orchestra. Sometimes one vaguely hears Berlioz and at other times someone equally unlikely. It's quite clear to me that for his time, Berwald was an exceptionally gifted orchestrator. The second movement stretches the regular form in that it places the scherzo inside the andante! There's also a big Haydnesque surprise along the way.

Symphony #4 in E-flat Major "Sinfonie Naïve"

I. Allegro risoluto
II. Adagio
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto
IV. Finale: Allegro vivace 

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

This symphony may be telling a story, but it isn't as necessary as that it maintain symphonic form. Perhaps then it's just exploring a range of emotions characterized as naïve. This work, written in the mid-1840's contains besides the usual bows to Haydn and Schubert, phrases and orchestration one would hear in Berloz. One wonders whether Berwald had occasion to discover anything left in Berlin or Vienna by the peripatetic French composer.

Now then, well perhaps you've already had enough. Well, not quite yet. Let's hear a work that was written ten years later as the composer was in his late fifties, a piano concerto this time. I'll note ahead of time that this isn't really like a Chopin or Schumann concerto as much as a pastiche of one. The best possible way to play it is as if one were playing one written by the other composers but again with precision, a little sparkle and strict fidelity to the written notes, regardless of how weird the phrase might at first seem to both the fingers and the ears. Here it is played rather wonderfully by Niklas Sivelöv. Again the Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester is conducted by Okko Kamu.

Piano Concerto in D Major (1855)

[Part 1] I. Allegro con brio
[Part 2] II. Andantino
[Part 3] III. Allegro molto
The movements are intended to run right into each other so the whole things is really one long movement. Lots of baseless fluff? Well hey, it's at least as interesting as some other more often heard concertos. Anyway I wanted to present some idea of how this composer approached using the piano. He was certainly under the spell of certain famous touring pianists of his day, no doubt hoping this effort would be picked-up by some virtuoso. How nice that we have these less favoured gems around to be played by more competent orchestra players and really fine pianists using far better pianos, etc.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

In Stockholm, about three years after Franz Berwald breathed his last, Carl Wilhelm Eugen Stenhammar [STEN-haw-mar] entered the world. Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927) would write two symphonies, two piano concertos and a host of other works including chamber music and piano sonatas. More of it is being played than ever before, but still little of it is widely known. Hey, get in on the ground floor. Stenhammer was among those who went to Berlin for a musical education and fell under the influence of Wagner and Bruckner among others. He was a conductor of the Göteborgs Symfoniker, the first professional orchestra in Sweden and was able to program many works by native Swedish composers. We may yet hear from some of them, who knows? In the meantime, let's have a listen to his symphonies. You'll recognize immediately the same writing for woodwind choirs juxtaposed against string phrases, occasionally quite stunning brass effects, and less whimsy than Berwald used, but certainly enough to produce convincing and occasionally stunning orchestral sound.

Symphony #1 in F Major (1902-3)

I. Tempo Molto Tranquillo - Allegro
II. Andante Con Moto
III. Allegro Amabile
IV. Allegro Non Tanto - Ma Con Fuoco - Tranquillo

I could not find the scoring for this one; it takes a big orchestra. Part of the reason is that Stenhammar “withdrew” this work later on, which is like disowning a child one isn't pleased with. Good thing the scores managed to survive. I actually like this one better than his second symphony; maybe it's the high violins against subdued horns which opens and closes the first movement, and the end of the symphony as well. The second movement is a gravely beautiful thing too even with its blatant steals from Brahms, oh well. Maybe it's the pace of the scherzo movement. There's plenty that traces right back to Wagner in here too. This symphony is a little sappier than the other one, less like some from his heroes, Sibelius or Nielsen in tone, but it's still breezier than any Bruckner. This work still manages to preserves that reserve, that detachment from the really serious, almost because there are some things in life that are more serious than mere drama. He does some amazing things with unorthodox progressions too, as had Berwald. But Stenhammar apparently considered this first effort too old fashioned; that he needed to get with the latest innovators. In the long run it hardly matters. It's played here by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov.  We are certainly grateful for performances like these, else we wouldn't be able to get to know this soave symphony. Certainly more orchestras need to play it.

Symphony #2 in g minor Op. 34 (1911-1915)

I. Allegro energico
II. Andante
III. Scherzo: Allegro, ma non troppo presto
IV. Finale: Sostenuto - Allegro vivace

Scored for the usual large orchestra, couldn't get more precise without consulting a score. You'll certainly notice quite a few blatant steals from Sibelius, as if this were written just after Sibelius' second symphony from which it certainly draws inspiration. The other composer who may come to mind is Edward Elgar. Stenhammar is said to have used Swedish folk and medieval church music motifs throughout. This symphony certainly has something a bit more commemorative or ceremonial about it. Even so, the reserve is somehow maintained; one is never quite of or in the music as much as one is asked merely to follow along or observe it as if from a distance either in time or circumstance. Perhaps its by the unexpected places the progressions may take one. This performance is conducted by Stig Westerberg and wonderfully played by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Before getting to Nielsen, there's just one more striking instance of Stenhammar's artistry on the web that I wanted to include here, a spectacular performance of his Serenade in F Major Op 31 minus the now included second movement called Reverenza (you'll have to try and find it elsewhere). This original version of the Serenade was played live by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in 2005 at the Festival concert celebrating Norway's 100th year anniversary of political independence from Denmark and Sweden.

What this work reveals is a kind of missing link between the musical palettes of the Wagnerians with which Stenhammar studied and for a time greatly admired, and new ideas springing from native talent in Scandinavia, particularly Sibelius. You'll notice obvious steals from each plate. But much in keeping with the pick and choose of the Smörgåsbord table of available orchestral sounds, everything Stenhammar chooses is passed through his predisposition for unexpected chord progressions, sliding tone centres and the sense of blithe detachment from even very deep or heartfelt harmonic juxtapositions which he shares with Berwald and Nielsen. Much of the time the emotional reactions produced might fit the romantic classification if we are discussing the sense of dramatic or fictional scenes being created and dissolved as if by magic; enchanted, or dreamy. Sibelius did not create in a vacuum nor were his innovations ignored. Stenhammar, only six years younger than Sibelius, who however did not outlive him, was clearly a beneficiary, as are we.

Serenade Op 31 (original version) (1911-13)

I. Overtura
: Allegrissimo

II.Conzonetta: Tempo di valse, un poco tranquillo
III.Scherzo: Presto
IV.Nottorno: Andante sostenuto
V.Finale: Tempo moderato

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) has so far emerged as Denmark's greatest composer. He wrote a lot of music that has yet to be widely performed though his six symphonies and more are about to see a revival. He came from a large but poor peasant family in Nørre Lyndelse near Sortelung south of Odense on the Danish island of Funen. I like this house, with its thatched roof, said to have been his childhood home. From a rough and tumble childhood life with few prospects, he entered the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen at the age of 19, staying for a couple years where he didn't do that well except that he managed to learn to play the violin better. But he did study composition with Niels Gade who we will probably have occasion to discuss on some future post as his work is interesting and relatively unknown, though it seems Nielsen liked Gade as a friend better than for his music, oh well. By 1889 at the age of 24, Nielsen managed to accomplish something that poor Jean Sibelius had very much wanted to do, to play violin in an orchestra. Instead Sibelius would write one of the greatest violin concertos of all time. Meanwhile Nielsen would play violin with the Royal Danish Orchestra for 16 years until his fortieth year in 1905. A lot else went on in his life which played a part in his compositions; he married a fiercely independent artist, a sculptor, had to raise three children along with his other duties as his wife was frequently absent on location to do her commissioned art which brought in badly needed funds. Throughout his life though, Nielsen seems to have been one who made the best out of any situation. This happy go lucky streak runs through his music like something emotionally unsinkable. During that period, the turn of the 19th into the turbulent 20th centuries, there could still be work composing music for special events, theatrical productions or cantatas. His income was supplemented by a pension after 1901, he was 36. But overwork and other strains were beginning to take their toll. After a serious heart attack in 1925, he was 60 years old, he curtailed much work, wrote his childhood memoir and died in 1931 at the age of 66. We wont go into the details of his eventually unhappy marriage or the cares of his strenuous life, as we're here to discuss his six amazing symphonies. Unlike some that were written during this period and after, Nielsen's symphonies each take around a half hour to perform. After digesting the works identified on this post and combining them with the seven of Sibelius' output, you have a total of 19 wonderful symphonies from the North to get to know as old friends.

Nielsen's childhood home
Symphony#1 in g minor, Op. 7 (1891-92)
I. Allegro orgoglioso
II. Andante
III. Allegro comodo — Andante sostenuto — Tempo I
IV. Finale. Allegro con fuoco

Scored for 3 flutes, (Flute 1 doubles piccolo in Movement 4), 2 oboes,
2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (1 and 2 in E-flat, G, and C basso; 3 and 4 in B-flat basso and F), 2 trumpets in E-flat and C, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Timpani and Strings.

We shall be hearing Herbert Blomstedt conduct the San Francisco Symphony for most of this music.

He's 31 and he writes his first symphony and from the outset it is different, a jagged theme in an uncertain home key of g minor and the thing is launched on its way, with many reserved and odd by turns moods created by his imaginative orchestration. It's all within the tight confines of traditional classical symphonic forms which he always seems to have preferred even as he stretched them in new ways unheard of before, unless that is you had never heard Berwald or Stenhammar.

Symphony #2 Defire Temperamenter, "The Four Temperaments", Op. 16 (1901-1902)

I. Allegro collerico (Choleric)
II. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
III. Andante malincolico [sic] (Melancholic)
IV. Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)

Scored for 3 flutes, 1st flute doubles piccolo, 2 oboes, 2nd oboe doubles English horn, 2 clarinets in A, B-flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani and Strings.

When you have all that brass into the mix, you can create some really fine walls of sound to use as more characters to play around with. There are tremendous psychological factors under all this music, but along with all that is the cool detachment that also allows unsettling and upstart motives and phrases. The playing has to be really first rate, no excessive vibrato or extra colour as he has written plenty into the score as it is. The shifting of tonalities, something we've observed since Berwald, is another factor he uses to take the audience by surprise.

Symphony #3 "Sinfonia Espansiva", Op. 27 (1910-1911)

I. Allegro espansivo
[PART 1] 
II. Andante pastorale
[PART 2] 

III. Allegretto un poco
[PART 3]
IV. Finale: Allegro
[PART 4]


Scored for 3 flutes, 3rd flute doubles piccolo, 3 oboes, 3rd oboe doubles English horn, 3 clarinets in A and B-flat, 3 bassoons, 3rd bassoon doubles contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani, Soprano solo, Mvt. II only (replaceable by 4th clarinet), Bass solo, Mvt. II only (replaceable by 4th trombone) and Strings.

This symphony is “expansive” but lasts only slightly longer than the first two. The usual Sibelius cribbed idioms occasionally float through it, but as is usual the treatments are highly original. Times had changed enough that these kinds of oddities, many clearly reminiscent of Berwald's techniques are and were more readily accepted by Nielsen's audiences, especially in Denmark.

Symphony #4 "The Inextinguishable", Op. 29 (1916)

I. Allegro —
II. Poco allegretto —
III. Poco adagio quasi andante —
IV. Allegro

Intended to be played without breaks as one continuous movement.

Scored for 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, and strings.

Written during World War I, Nielsen's way of coping with the tragedy of the Great War was to look beyond it and consider the will to life itself as the inspiration for his latest greatest symphony, the inextinguishable being life itself; the answer to death has always been life itself.

Symphony No.5, Op. 50 (1920-22)

I. Tempo giusto—Adagio non troppo
II. Allegro—Presto—Andante un poco tranquillo—Allegro

Scored for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, celesta, and strings.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded during a live performance at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 17 April 2004.

Nielsen said, "it is littered with false climaxes at every turn." Always keep your audiences guessing where you're finally going to land. This was the break from the previous four symphonies, living in their traditional symphonic spaces. Wonder if the war had something to do with Nielsen's determination to strive to use new methods? He was in his fifties and perhaps he begin to realize time was running out. We are in the range of techniques involved with much that is modern in orchestral conception now, bi-tonality, "deformation procedures" suggested by James Hepokoski regarding musical modernism: breakthrough deformation, introduction-coda frame, episodes within developmental space, various strophic / sonata hybrids and multi-movement forms in a single movement. You also hear the snare drum which is to figure in many 20th century orchestral compositions, a symbol for war, militarism, totalitarianism and oppression. Nielsen could certainly find within his homespun complexity a place for cynical comment on modern times that has become a trademark of many Soviet era composers since the Great War and its aftermath. We are now at the vantage point of cinema orchestration; symphonic scores and orchestras playing soundtracks for documentaries or other dramas based on modern world events amd life currents. Nonetheless, there are still places where something hopeful sounds through; a searching for transcendence, a way to climb out and above the wearisome.

SymphonyNo. 6 "Sinfonia semplice", no opus number (1924)

I. Tempo giusto -- Lento, ma non troppo -- Tempo I
II. Humoreske. Allegretto -- Allegro -- Tempo I
III. Proposta seria. Adagio
IV. Thema mit Variationen. Allegro -- Thema. Allegretto un poco -- Variationen 1-9 -- Fanfare

Scored for 2 flutes, 1st flute doubles piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani, Glockenspiel, Xylophone, Triangle, Cymbals, Snare drum, Bass drum and Strings.

Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra), Paavo Järvi, conducting.

Some have suggested this is a partially autobiographical work involving his heart attacks which led to his eventual retirement. In subtle ways it looks both forward and backward. This performance allows us to see the orchestra at work rendering this foremost modern work with brilliance and energy.

I want to thank you for taking the time to consider the still largely unknown works of these Nordic masters with me. I hope you have truly enjoyed the experience!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Violetta Egorova, piano


The following links are presented here without further comment. Enjoy!

W A Mozart Rondo a-moll, K511 

( Music festival "Days of Austrian Culture in Moscow" in The State Historical Museum, Parade Hall, Red Square. Posted on May 3, 2011 )

W A Mozart Sonata #13 in F K332 Allegro

Robert Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26 (1839) 
( at Teatro Musco Gravina di Catania - 11 Febbraio 2012 )

Robert Schumann Sonate g moll Op. 22 (1865-8)
[PART 1] 1. So rasch wie moglich ("As quickly as possible" - however, near the end, Schumann
writes "Schneller" and then "Noch Schneller", meaning "Faster" and "Still faster")  
[PART 2] 2. Andantino. Getragen (Adagio)
[PART 3] 3. Scherzo. Sehr rasch und markiert
4. Rondo. Presto
( Recorded Live Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition,
Maurice Abravanel Hall of the Symphony Hall
Salt Lake City, UT,USA  1991 )

Robert Schumann Fantasie Op. 17 in C Major
1.  Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
2.  Mäßig Durchaus energisch
3. Langsam getragen  
Auditorium RAI Palermo - posted 7 April, 2013 

Franz Liszt Paganini Etude #6
( Recorded Live Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition,
Maurice Abravanel Hall of the Symphony Hall
Salt Lake City, UT,USA  1991 )

Franz Liszt Mephisto Valse

P I Tchailkovsky Valse from Ballet "Battleship Potemkin" 
in transcription for piano by Violetta Egorova
Encore at Auditorium Palermo - posted 25 March, 2013

Anatoly Liadov "The Music Box"

Alexander Scriabin  
Prelude Op 11 #2
Prelude Op 11 #6
Prelude Op 11 #9
Prelude Op 11 #10


Edvard Grieg, "Carnival Scene" from Pictures of Country Life

Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody N.9 "Carnival in Pest" 

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Polka de W. R.
live in Bucharest, Romania 2013

For further information, Violetta's official website is here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Glenn Hardy, piano

The previous two posts indicate something of the range of pianism; in the case of Justine Verdier, of a budding concert pianist in the classical music tradition, who was incidentally playing some of my favourite piano music by Beethoven and Ravel, then in the case of Viktoriya Yermolyeva, of a pianist who obviously demonstrates both a tremendous technique and a considerable body of work which fully establishes the seriousness with which the musical material was treated, despite what any of us might say about the initial value of the original music. As it so happens, neither of these artists have I met personally, though who knows? I might at some time in the future have that pleasure.

This time, I'm introducing my audience to someone I went to school with a long time ago. Glenn Hardy has had a particular interest in American piano styles reaching back into the ragtime era around the turn of the last century. Here's an example:

Ragtime Piano: Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag

When Glenn and I used to get together in San Francisco, another lifetime ago, he would casually pull out some complicated rag and play it as one would a piece of Schubert or Mozart; with respect for the music, and as if he were sitting for a recording or preparing just how he would play it in public. Glenn's technique always impressed me. Here's something else he plays with consummate ease from a live performance:

Boogie-Woogie Times Three by Glenn Hardy

His notes are important: This illustrated “three different boogie-woogies...New Orleans, Kansas City, and another New Orleans. My own adaptations, of course...inspired by Professor Longhair, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, James Booker.”
These are styles Glenn took the time, patience and effort to analyze, break apart, determine their technical foundation, and then make them his own. Glenn also plays jazz as if it was and is as timeless as something officially more “classical”. Here's a good example, Glenn plays a 1939 song from a Broadway show, Swingin' The Dream, music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Eddie DeLange. Here is Glenn's adaptation of "Darn That Dream":

Darn That Dream
You can find out more about Glenn here:

Viktoriya Yermolyeva, piano

Presenting a link to a great selection of the work of the Ukranian pianist, Viktoriya Yermolyeva, without further comment.
Vika Yermolyeva (aka vkgoeswild), Award-winning classical pianist, who decided to try something else.

For those who perhaps wanted to hear her play a real piano, here she is on a

An update, here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Justine Verdier, piano

A selection of Justine Verdier's performances in presented here.  She plays music by Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, Scriabin, Chopin, Bach, Liszt and Prokofiev..  Enjoy!   

UPDATE: 7 October 2012

Justine also played this modern piano concerto by the Polish composer Milosz Magin (1929-1999) who is one of those composers nobody knows about yet, but no doubt will.  I have some criticisms of his composition techniques, which are in fact not really his fault (some of what he does strikes me as acceptable theme music for some banal sit-com movie), however of Ms. Verdier's rendition of his music, I have none, for she manages to capture everything this music requires.

Milosz Magin (1929-1999) : Concerto No. 2 for Piano, string orchestra and Timpani (1964)

UPDATE: 2 November 2012

"Justine VERDIER and Daniel DIAZ, founder of the "DUO PIANISSIMO" ® perform "the MOLDAU", symphonic poem by SMETANA, arrangement for piano 4 hands by the author. It is interesting to notice some differences of texture compared with the orchestral score."

Indeed it is, and the selection of piano reductions for performance, whether by the composers of the associated orchestral score or not, is a trend worth promoting.  Their performance is wonderful. 

Bedrich Smetina (1824-1884)  "La Moldau"    

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Somewhere Else with Ax & Ma

Emanuel Ax
We each have our places of solitude where perhaps we listen to our favourite music or better yet actually get to play some of it with our friends.

I got a call from a friend in New York who had just heard Emanuel Ax play in an all Mozart program with the Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert. Years ago, in another age, I got to hear Emanuel Ax play a Mozart concerto live, and yes, there really is nothing like hearing it live, and all the words like “inevitable” or “natural” or anything implying that he makes it sound as if the music should “flow like oil” (Mozart's own words) certainly fit his playing as they apply to few others of his generation.

Another of our favourites is the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. We heard him play at Tanglewood a few years back and after the concert saw him attend to his adoring public and sign autographs with what seemed like infinite patience and graciousness rarely seen these days.

I'd like then to suggest having a listen to the two of them play this exquisite masterpiece by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a Sonata (D. 821) he wrote in November of 1824 in Vienna. The original was written not for a violincello but a bowed guitar called an Arpeggione and piano accompaniment.

What's particularly instructive about this performance is the spaces between notes and the way the music is carried along by using the sustain of each instrument in a close match of careful inter-layered textures. This is intimate classical chamber playing at it's very best. Even when the music likes a faster tempo with lighter figurations, the sustains between the instruments hold everything together in a coziness that is rarely felt and experienced as well as this. Those who perhaps regard all modern interpretations as lacking what the old masters of perhaps the early 20th century could do, should certainly listen to this; not only is Ax the consummate accompanist, but Yo-Yo's tone is often so supple as to take your breath away. This sonata is in 3 movements:

1. Allegro moderato in a minor
[PART 2]
2. Adagio in E major
3. Allegretto in A major
Yo-Yo Ma

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Music of the Great Composers – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

The second in a pair of musicians (Franck being the first) who were best known during their lifetimes as organists (who were born two years apart), though they are remembered these days for the music they composed for other instruments, is the Austrian, Anton Bruckner.

We come to the case of Bruckner as great composer with a little reluctance as he was during his lifetime so self-effacing that he was often criticized for allowing others to take undue advantage of him, even to the extent of revising his music to suit their tastes. Though there are some difficulties posed by these revisions, many of which were authorized by the composer, there is something that is actually distinctive enough about Bruckner's musical style that he has gained admirers around the world almost as the central figure in a kind of cult of this often forgotten or unrecognised master; there are those who love Bruckner's music with some degree of fanatical attachment, often of a particularly mystical cast, whilst there are also those out there who simply can't stand his music very much, if at all.

I personally cannot claim to be in either camp, though at one time I was among the doubters. Acquaintance with Bruckner's later symphonies brought me around to his unique position in music; of the inevitable culmination of classical style centred as it had been in Austria, cloaked in the Romanticized Catholicism of the late 19th century, as it certainly lived there among the country people from whom Bruckner sprang in the relative isolation of a small town outside Linz. 

Bruckner was born here
The brief details are that Bruckner came of what we'd consider a rustic lower middle class background (his parents were teachers and he became one as well). His father died and his mother put him in school where he did well. He always did well in school, adapted himself easily to the requirements of authorities and doggedly pursued his goals including later in life the writing of his symphonies.

St. Florian, where Bruckner studied
and later became an organist

Bruckner as a young man

There is always something patient, workmanlike and monkish about Bruckner. He was a lifelong bachelor, but had notorious attractions to young teen aged girls, much of which may have been overly romanticised over the years. He was also quite well known to like drinking beer. There isn't really anything particularly celebratory about his character or memorable about his personality. Bruckner was never mean, he took advice perhaps too easily from those of stronger personalities, but certainly by the end of his life, Bruckner gained a commanding position in Austria's principle music school, the Vienna Conservatory, from which to offer tremendous influence on the younger generation of composers who would contribute to the late flowering of musical romanticism in Vienna, sometimes called the Second Vienna School. We would really have to include Bruckner, along with Brahms, as the masters who re-ignited acute interest in musical composition there from the 1880's onward, until the First World War brought it all to an end.
Professor Bruckner

Of Bruckner's music, we can say that it was a mixture of techniques borrowed from Richard Wagner (Bruckner is said to be a “post-Wagnerian”) and used as a great organist / improviser might have used them; orchestra used as organ, complete with great swells and deep quietness, rarely complete silence. Rather than melodic themes, which one might remember or call to mind later, Bruckner likes to take a musical phrase, sometimes called an episode in musical terms, and stretch it through repetition, into unexpected tone centres, using harmonies that are familiar to those familiar with Wagner's music; the late romantic symphonic sounds, big orchestration, huge brass ensembles, strings which can pierce the heavens and move the earth, etc. There is frequently little advance warning where any of these episodes will lead, so that listening carefully to a Bruckner symphony is a bit of an adventure, if one can stay focused and interested.

What one may remember from Bruckner symphonies are strange places where something unusual is brought to the attention, either an odd combination of instruments, a strange phrase, some weird sideways harmonic progression, always delivered as if the one who wrote it was relating some scenes from an epic saga or heroic adventure and faithfully just doing his job of relating the details. Regardless of criticisms and claims to the contrary, there is something consistent and persistent in his work; when Bruckner finished one symphony, he would quietly begin the construction and scoring of his next, whether he ever hoped to have them performed in his lifetime or not.

Sometimes they were actually performed during his lifetime, and got reviews like this one from Eduard Hanslick, the champion of the music of Brahms, upon hearing Bruckner's third symphony:

...his [Bruckner's] artistic intentions are honest, however oddly he employs them. Instead of a critique, therefore, we would rather simply confess that we have not understood his gigantic symphony. Neither were his poetic intentions clear to us … nor could we grasp the purely musical coherence. The composer … was greeted with cheering and was consoled with lively applause at the close by a fraction of the audience that stayed to the end … the Finale, which exceeded all its predecessors in oddities, was only experienced to the last extreme by a little host of hardy adventurers.”

The last three Bruckner symphonies are probably his best known works, but let's introduce our readers and listeners to one of these other huge symphonies. It's rare to find any You Tube tracks that feature anything as long as a typical Bruckner symphony in one track, but here's one. It's his less well known Symphony #6 in A Major (well it passes into many keys but I guess it starts and ends there). It is played here by the San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt conducting. Maestro Blomstedt seems to have chosen this symphony to perform with a number of great orchestras.

Bruckner Symphony #6 in A Major (completed in 1881)

I: Majestoso
II: Adagio. Sehr feierlich
III: Scherzo. Nicht schnell — Trio. Langsam
IV: Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell

The San Francisco Symphony is conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in a live performance.

You may notice that this symphony follows classical form, though that form is itself stretched so as almost not to be easily comprehended. We also note in passing that the year this symphony was completed marked the same year Brahms' monumental second piano concerto was premièred and the year in which Béla Bartók was born. This symphony was first performed after the composer's death in 1899 by Gustav Mahler, who we will later encounter as one of the chief beneficiaries of Bruckner's musical legacy.

Vienna Conservatory of Music


Monday, June 11, 2012

Reflections on John Anthony West's Phoenixfire 10

John Anthony West's Official Site
John Anthony West's Phoenixfireblog.

Magical Egypt, a Symbolist tour.
John Anthony West
(created by Chance Gardner with original music by Geraint Hughes).

E1-The Invisible Science
E2-The Old Kingdom and the Still Older Kingdom

This episode labelled as Unexplained Egypt
E4-The Temple inMan

Magical Egypt, a Symbolist tour.
E5-Navigating the Afterlife
[This is spectacular! A must see!]

[The Masonically connected bearded gentleman in this series, though he may bear a striking resemblance to me, is not related to me in any way that I know of.]

Serpent in the Sky by John Anthony West.
The Mystery of the Spinx documentary. Both available here.

Taking a departure from the usual subject matter of this blog, I offer my reflections on the latest report from John Anthony West, who though we haven't been in direct contact for a number of years, remains someone I certainly regard as a friend and curiously perhaps also a mentor. Well, he made quite an impression on me, and still does.

The first half of his 10th Phoenixfire podcast is about Egypt (yes, he and his “grockles” were there during the revolution), a place that has 83 million people, but according to John can only support maybe 50 million comfortably. John doesn't seem to think much can be done except to perhaps let Nature take its course, though he may have other ideas he didn't share. John describes as best he can what can only be experienced in person in Egypt. Likely only those who can afford to do it with John Anthony West, and some have come along with him on his trips to Egypt several times, will ever get to see it the way he does and has for most of his life. Regrettably, I never went on one of his trips.

I like reminding people that as much as we read, write and study, there is no possible comparable equivalent to actual personal experience, which often defies our ability to convey in mere words. I believe this is true for those taking up the piano too (or any other musical instrument), or for those who genuinely immerse themselves in any of the formidable arts, including the preparation of the best cuisine (of which, I might add, John West is certainly above competent). One can talk all one wants about a particular experience, even if one has per chance experienced something as a spectator, an audience, a diner, a tourist, but until one makes a commitment to experience something personally, to take real notice with all one's faculties, one is only usually granted the dismissive status of a dilettante (doubtless on a number of subjects, I am one).

John then takes up some of the trends being followed by Gerald Celente and his staff at the Trends Research Institute, of which John is in fact a senior member, perhaps even Celente's éminence grise (Gerald is uniquely fortunate if this is the case). John blends these trends with continuing his exposé of what happened many centuries ago in Egypt concerning the Sphinx. He brings up Zep Tepi, 'The First Time' and how this archeological discovery brings us back to how old the Sphinx really is and what this means concerning the abilities of people in ancient civilizations and frankly reconnecting us with our important and forgotten past. It isn't likely that the standard accepted histories are going to be sustained in veracity by the outcome of these studies either.

I was always in agreement with John concerning what he describes as the “Church of Progress” and was able to understand his objections to this zeitgeist based on my own personal experiences of great music from the past, none of which could have or would have been written today. Anyway, John tracks back into describing the Comstock Load in Nevada and some “preferred” investor looking to re-open the mining there. What he expects, and it is true, is that no matter what happens to the “system” and hence to the economy, precious metals will hold up their value over other assets as the present system tilts toward inevitable collapse. John is interested in using investments in this enterprise to help micro-finance his research / film making project on Zep Tepi. He expects to improve on his earlier documentary The Mystery of the Sphinx.

What's very important about John's work is that it stands athwart the usual academic / scientific guesses about the history of ancient civilizations and of ancient man. It's not difficult to appreciate that many, probably most, have been fooled into ascribing to our present society a degree of “progress” which it does not deserve. Their tendency has been to diminish the civilizations of the past as inferior to our own, when it could have been precisely the opposite of the actual truth. Indeed one begins to wonder whether life as a common person in ancient Egypt might not have have been just as fulfilling as living as a common person in the modern world.

It is possible that modern civilization has lost much of significance by failing to understand and take seriously the viewpoints of those whom it regarded as retarded or inferior in their development or in need of special expertise from Western societies; the powerful means to specify either absorption or annihilation as the only possible choices for these people. We are blinded by our own viewpoints which fail to recognize that the experience of others just might teach us something of value, perhaps even of inestimable value, as for instance the herbalism of primitive peoples. For the interested, I recommend The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby.

Materialist science, which has been largely the creation of the commercial forces in what we like to call Western civilization, has blinded us to what can only be personally experienced and often using quite different techniques, involving memes, symbols, frames of reference, semantic meaning, inherited experiences, etc. We have in this process, as it were, accepted the means as synonymous with the ends, which is like expecting a map to be the equal of the actual journey, and therefore have accepted a method for truth without acknowledging that much, perhaps most truth, is only accessible and verifiable outside the chosen method. It's actually worse than that, as many so called “scientists” are willing to do their share of shoehorning data (even actually destroying artifacts that “don't belong” where they are found) to support preconceived ideas which are not truth, though they may be accepted as such by the general public. 

Of course we need to be ever vigilant against an automatic belief response to a scientific community that is, like it or not, financially supported by governments and organizations with certain preconceived notions they want the science to support or confirm. If I have not said it at least a hundred times now, I state it again; the “feet of clay” of what we like to suppose is a thoroughly grounded Western scientific tradition is ... what it chooses to study. If it were not for someone's money interest, usually a government (pressured into spending the money through some contrivance of doing the public good through special privilege enrichment) or a corporation or perhaps a venture capitalist, no science per se would ever get done.

I accept my fair share of responsibility for dilettantism, though I offer in defence the following assertion; that the more specialized one becomes in whatever discipline or chosen technique, the less one is able to participate in or personally experience the otherwise unseen and unknowable connections between the specifics and gain a larger picture of reality the way it must be lived from day to day, which as far as anyone knows may be the only valid reality.

In closing, and maybe it's fitting, well, it's his birthday actually; I've decided to close this post with a “classic” performance of Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklarung), Op. 24 by Richard Strauss (1864-1949):
[PART 1]
[PART 2]

Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, (1972) in one of those fabulous recordings he made seemingly for all time. (This one sure sounds good on headphones!)