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!)


Friday, June 8, 2012

Mahler's Tenth

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) close to the end.
The subject of this post is Deryck Cooke's original 1960 Radio Programme describing Mahler's Unfinished Tenth Symphony. It would be very difficult for me to estimate the personal impact this programme made on a mere lad of 9 years old who was interested in finding out about music and especially about composition and to discover a composer whose music from this last unfinished work has dazzled ever since. It was rebroadcast in my area a few weeks after it was first aired.

It's been over 50 years now. This unfinished symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a composition that I return to from time to time to assess my bearings in a world that has since changed so dramatically. This music now strikes one as perhaps loaded with antique longings and nostalgia for a different time; a longing for that which cannot possibly be reclaimed. One easily forgets that about the time this work was written (1911) the world was teetering on the brink of the Great War that Mahler would thankfully not live to see, and this final symphony is filled with the atonality that would affect music for the next hundred years.

Combined with all that caused tragedy and regret, all the pains and poisons of life, the final triumphant recapture of the original key (F Sharp Major) in which this very difficult symphony was written, written against time, impending death and not completed, it's amazing that enough of it was there to make the best completion possible under the circumstances. These days we are treated to the best possible renditions of this work by the likes of Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Someone I have known for many years once out of the blue, not knowing I had any interest in Mahler, said he had acquired one of the only original manuscripts to this symphony. Did he know this work? How could he have possibly known the special place this music holds in my heart?

I've known this music now for most of my life: it's so familiar to me that I can easily call to mind most of it and some of it recurs at particular times, like the opening enigmatic theme or the beautiful ländler theme in the 2nd movement, the tortured romanticism of the 4th movement or the final climax of the finale. Have a listen to the first widely circulated presentation of this remarkable music as it was put together by Deryck Cooke, a true champion of art, music which I have loved dearly for most of my life.

Deryck Cooke in 1960
UPDATE 8 December 2012:

For those who might prefer an even more detailed description of this stupendous symphony which helps explain much of what's really going on within it, I suggest this page from Classical Podcasts:  Symphony #10 in F Sharp Major (1911)   You may find much else on this website to like, or not.