Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bartok: Violin Concerto #2

We will take a few more tentative steps into modern classical music today as we listen to Béla Bartók's Second Violin Concerto.

This is the first time I've listened to Bartok here at 101 Classical Music CDs, and despite the fact that I've been listening to classical music for some 30 years, it took me a surprisingly long time to acclimate to this work. This extremely complex concerto only started to make sense to me after three very close listens.
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto #2
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991

And this is why, if you are still new to classical music and are just starting up your collection of recordings, I would suggest you do not buy this CD until you've first become familiar with key works from earlier classical music eras. For some additional thoughts on the various challenges and rewards of listening to modern classical music, see listener note #6 below.

One other housekeeping item before we get into the listener notes: the CD I own isn't currently available at Amazon as a standalone disc, but it is available as part of an excellent 3-CD compilation of performances by Anne-Sophie Mutter (see also the graphical link to Amazon below). If you are interested in a good survey of the work of this amazingly talented violinist--and you'd also like to leave me a tip in my tip jar--feel free to click on these links to visit Amazon.

Listener Notes for Bartok's Violin Concerto #2:
1) It is interesting to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing style after having just spent time with a violin playing prodigy from a few decades earlier, Michael Rabin. While listening to Mutter really dig her bow into the strings, I can't help but notice how much more florid, powerful and masculine Mutter's playing style is compared to Rabin's (how politically incorrect does that sound?). Of course, as a former trumpet player, I'm stating these opinions with absolutely no context on how to play the violin.

2) It's worth listening a couple of times to Mutter's cadenza in the first movement (from 12:40 to 14:33). If you are like me and your exposure to cadenzas is limited to the works of classical-era composers (Haydn, Mozart, etc), you'll find this to be an extraordinary-sounding solo.

3) Listen at 15:43 in the first movement to how Mutter picks off that ultra high note.

4) There are two notably beautiful passages in the second movement of this concerto: at the very beginning (0:00-4:35), and at the very end (9:09-9:55). But here's a caveat for those of you new to classical music: most modern classical music isn't really all that beautiful, at least not in the sense that, say, a Mozart concerto is beautiful. In many cases I'd argue that it's more accurate to describe the "beautiful" portions of many 20th century classical music works by using made-up compound words like creepy-beautiful, or eerie-beautiful, or weird-beautiful. Or perhaps "you'll-get-used-to-it-beautiful."

5) Listen to the cellos and violas whapping at their strings with their bows in the second movements (at 7:37, 7:42 and 7:59). An interesting sound effect.

6) Let me close this post by discussing a typical conundrum of modern classical music. Listen to the first 14 seconds of the third movement a few times in a row (this is where the string section and then the violin soloist state the initial themes of the movement).

Is this passage distinctive? Yes, certainly. Is it extremely complex? Yes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Do you have to listen to it several times to "get it"? Yes, and that's also not necessarily a bad thing--music that's "too easy" won't hold your attention for long, but truly challenging music can hold your interest for years, as it will reward you with new nuances each time you listen to it.

But can you hum or sing this melody? Will it stick in your mind when you're walking home from the symphony hall?

Ah. Now, we face head-on a key problem with 20th century music. There is often so much nuance and complexity baked into music from this era that--for lack of a better term--there's no tune. When you think of the greatest works of the so-called "golden era" of classical music (arguably the classical and romantic periods), these works were often highly complex and nuanced, but the listener didn't have to work so hard to get at the fundamental essence of the music. To me, many modern classical compositions overwhelm the listener with too much complexity. And more often than not, this excess complexity only obscures the beauty and musicality of the work itself.

I hope to discuss more of the challenges of listening to modern classical music in future posts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dvorak: Symphony #6

We return to Dvorak after an extremely long hiatus to listen to his Sixth Symphony, performed on a CD recorded live by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.
Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

Dvorák: Symphony No. 6
LSO Live, 2004

If you're in the early stages of building a classical music collection and are wondering whether you should include this work, let me be brief: don't bother. Dvorak has more impressive symphonies. If you want his best-known work, get this excellent recording of his Ninth; if you want to impress your friends with your originality by owning one of Dvorak's less-well-known work, then get the Seventh or Eighth Symphony (or both--they can be found on one CD here).

This symphony was beautiful and well-played, don't get me wrong. But I failed to connect with it on an emotional level, and the four movements just didn't seem to go together. The symphony didn't sound like a coherent whole to me.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Sixth Symphony:
1) The primary melody of the first movement is simple and kind of catchy.

2) Mumbling conductor alert: if you listen very closely at 4:30 in the first movement, you can hear the microphones pick up Sir Colin mumbling the melody along with the strings. You'll hear him off and on throughout the entire symphony. Somebody put a mike just a bit close to the podium, eh?

3) The tension that Dvorak puts into the first movement seems to me to be a bit artificial. I can hear that he's trying to create tension, yet I don't actually feel the tension. Do any readers out there who are familiar with this symphony agree with me?

4) Off-key clarinet alert! In the second movement from 0:19 to 0:24. Contrast this with two parts later in the movement, from 2:46 to 3:00 and 3:48 to 4:15, where he does a much better job of nailing the part.

5) I consider the second movement to be the most beautiful movement of the symphony, but don't you agree that it doesn't really go with the first movement? An example of this work's lack of coherence.

6) The third movement is classic Dvorak: pure, toe-tapping, Eastern European folk melodies. I love it!

7) Listen to the fourth movement from 2:35 to 2:38 for the offsetting eighth notes played by the strings. I'm sure this part gets screwed up more often than not in live performances. The LSO sounds great here.

8) The last two minutes of the fourth movement, particularly the passage from 8:35 to 9:00, are really rollicking, aren't they?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chopin: Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle

After last week's derisive post on Paganini, I thought I'd shift to a composer who writes difficult-to-play music that doesn't threaten the very health of the musicians who play his works.

Chopin. The poet of the piano. Today's Four Scherzi are masterpieces, full of emotion, tension, lyricism and complexity. They were among Chopin's last publications before his untimely death from consumption at age 39.
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin: 4 Scherzi, Berceuse, Barcarolle
Deutsche Grammophon, 1991
What is a scherzo, exactly? Usually the word refers to one of the middle movements of a traditional symphony; typically it will be a lively dance-like piece in 3/4 time.

Unfortunately, the word scherzo also means "joke" in Italian, leaving us to wonder if Chopin was being ironic or serious in using this name for these deeply emotional one-movement works for solo piano:

How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed if jest is to go about in such dark-colored garments?"
--Robert Schumann, referring to Chopin's Scherzo #1 in B minor

Listener notes for Chopin's Four Scherzi, Berceuse and Barcarolle:
Scherzo #1:
1) This has the angst and loaded emotional content of a Beethoven piano sonata, doesn't it? I don't really know what to call a work like this (a sonata in miniature?), but it is certainly not a joke. Not in any way.

Scherzo #2:
2) Listen to the passage from 2:20 to 3:09. Doesn't it sounds like four hands playing, not two?

Scherzo #3:
3) This is another particularly beautiful work. The more I think about this CD and the arresting music on it, the more I think this might be my all-time favorite classical music CD!

4) Another arresting composition, flawlessly performed by Mr. Pollini. This work is quiet, relaxing and beautiful; it also sounds almost improvisational in nature. Particularly interesting to me is the increasingly complex melodic line played by the right hand over a simple repeating left hand phrase.

A completely unrelated side note: After listening to music that is so incomparably beautiful, I can't help wondering: what have I done (or what will I do) that will ever be worth remembering?

At times it can be extremely difficult for me to listen to great music like this because its greatness almost definitionally proves the basic fact of my own insignificance. Do you find this to be the case when you listen to great music too?

Music is a highly emotional medium to begin with; when it also reminds you of how insignificant you are, it can be psychologically devastating to listen to it. Of course, this entire avenue of thought is fundamentally unhealthy--and more importantly, it is not at all the point of listening to classical music. But nevertheless, I can't help but recognize, from time to time, the simple and highly likely fact that most likely I will do little worth remembering at all. In fact, it's quite possible that I--and you, and most everyone we know--will over the course of an entire life do absolutely nothing that will be remembered.

That's pretty discouraging isn't it? Unless of course you join the struggle to write, create, produce, or offer up something of value that remains after you leave this life. Otherwise, yes, it is the basic nature of things that we will all likely be forgotten.

Wouldn't it be easier to just stop listening to Chopin if it makes me dwell on this? Perhaps.

But should I? No. Why give up something so beautiful? In any event, it would only be treating the symptom. One must either accept one's place in the collective memory of the world, or one must engage in a fierce, daily struggle to change that place. I think this is why I write.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Paganini: 24 Caprices Performed by Michael Rabin

Today's post is about not one, but two of history's greatest violin prodigies, and one of the most challenging collections of classical music ever written for the violin.

Nicolo Paganini, our first prodigy, was not only the greatest violinist who ever lived, he can also be thought of as classical music's first rock star, with worldwide fame, groupies, mistresses, and stupefied audiences of weeping and crying fans, some of whom were convinced that Paganini was under the control of Satan himself. I like to think of him as a 19th century version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Michael Rabin, violin (1936-1972)
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
24 Caprices For Solo Violin
EMI Classics, 1958/1993
On the other hand, our second prodigy, Michael Rabin, never made it to his 36th birthday. Widely seen as one of the 20th century's most gifted violinists, he died in a freak accident in his New York City apartment--he slipped on the floor and hit his head on a chair. Fortunately, Rabin left for posterity this highly-regarded recording of Paganini's most difficult violin works.

Perhaps to use the word "difficult" to describe these compositions is a grievous understatement. Paganini's 24 Caprices are so physically and technically demanding to play that professional violinists have to take particular care when practicing them to avoid injury. It's even been speculated that Paganini had hyper-extensible joints, or may have even had Marfan's syndrome, otherwise he would not have had large enough and flexible enough hands to perform these works.

And herein lies the problem. Much of this is CD is what I consider "boop bleep" music, a technical term dating from my days playing from my Arban's Method for Trumpet practice book. The Arban, the bane of teenage trumpet players everywhere, contains countless etudes and musical works designed to help the musician learn control and finesse by playing technically, often preposterously, demanding exercises.

Think of the 24 Caprices as an Arban composed for gods. Even a musician completely ignorant of the subtleties of the violin will be able to tell that this music is preposterously difficult. You could argue that these caprices are so far beyond the normal capabilities of the violin that even a world-class musician like Michael Rabin sounds strained, off-key, and at times just plain bad, playing them.

This music is challenging, yes; but it doesn't sound like it's any fun to play, and it is decidedly not beautiful. Contrast the Caprices to the unstrained and beautiful music by Chopin or Schumann, both of whom wrote music that was not only beautiful and emotionally compelling, but also designed perfectly for the capabilities of the piano.

I understand and appreciate why impossible-to-play music like this exists, but it should be relegated to practice rooms, not concert halls. The violin is difficult enough to play as it is.

Are there Paganini fans out there who differ in their views? I'd love to hear a compelling argument for why this is great music.

A brief final note: In addition to a link to today's CD, I've also included a link to a boxed set of violinist Michael Rabin's collected works for those readers interested in learning more about this brilliant prodigy who died all too early.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #2

Today's post will cover Felix Mendelssohn's Second Symphony, from disc 2 of our 3-CD set of his five symphonies.

Admittedly, the Second is a bit of a marathon. It starts off innocently enough like any other symphony, with three instrumental movements. But instead of finishing things up with a predictable fourth movement, Mendelssohn takes us into a nine-movement choral work. Collectively, the entire work is as long as two "normal" Mendelssohn symphonies.

Mendelssohn dedicated his Second Symphony to the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing, which he believed to be one of the most important events in history.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
Listener Notes for Mendelssohn's Second Symphony:
1) I'll say this for Mendelssohn: in this symphony he finally puts the brass section to work.

2) I don't see what's so aesthetically disappointing to music critics about this symphony. It has a wonderful, simply stated 10 note introductory theme, a pleasant fast waltz second movement, and a very moving third movement. Granted, I may not be contemplating life's greatest questions or overcome by emotion as I listen to this work, but other than that, this is really quite a nice work of music.

3) The third movement, in fact, is as beautiful as any slow movement I've heard recently for this blog. Perhaps it doesn't quite measure up to the second movement of Liszt's Faust Symphony, but it certainly holds its own against any of Beethoven's early symphonies or any of the works by Haydn I've listened to lately.

4) Woodwind intonation alert: It's highly disappointing to hear quite a few off-key woodwind notes in the third movement. The clarinets are the primary guilty party here. Imagine if this third movement were played perfectly? The hair on the back of my neck would be standing up.

5) At the 6:25 mark in the third movement, hear the oboe (barely) pick off a really difficult high note in a solo. Then hear him hit it with a lot more confidence on the second try at 6:45.

6) Listen to these Germans sing! Feisty, aren't they?

7) Classical music newcomers will likely find the unintelligible German singing a bit disconcerting. My advice is don't worry so much about what they're saying; just let the music wash over you. In a nutshell, the singers are praising the lord, worrying if the night will pass, and once the night does pass, thanking God and praising him some more. If you don't understand the words, you aren't missing all that much.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mendelssohn: Symphony #5

We return to classical music's second best-known prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn. Today I'll be writing about his Fifth Symphony.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
It's been a long while since I returned to this three-CD set of Mendelssohn's five symphonies. I covered Symphony #1 way back in March 2008, and somehow eight months passed by before I came back to this collection (a side note: a commenter left a link on that post to a weirdly mesmerizing performance of Louis Farrakhan--yep, that Louis Farrakhan--playing a Mendelssohn violin concerto. You just never know who might be out there in cyberspace reading your blogs).

In any event, what is taking me so long to finish off this CD? It's certainly not because the music isn't wonderful. But I will say that on some level, Mendelssohn's symphonies lack the powerful feeling of some of the other Romantic composers we've been listening to lately. It's been such a pleasure exploring more intense works of that era that I guess I just haven't been drawn back to Mendelssohn until now.

Forgive me for borrowing a couple of exhausted terms from the political arena, but Mendelssohn was the "conservative" of the Romantic era. His music evoked the greats of the past like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and, to borrow a quote from The Essential Canon of Classical Music, he "repressed some of the more violent aspects of Romanticism"--meaning in part that his music neither challenged Classical era rules nor burst with the intense emotion of less repressed Romantic composers like Liszt, Chopin and Schumann.

Thus Liszt, Chopin and Schumann were the "progressives" of the Romantic era. These men, variously alienated or at odds with conventional society, wrote music that shattered the rigid structures of Classical-era music and had a level of emotional content (and in the case of Schumann, a level of madness) that shocked audiences at the time.

It's understandable, then, that Mendelssohn's music was seen as more comfortable and approachable by music fans of the day, although in my opinion the "progressives" ultimately won out--their music simply sounds more compelling today than Mendelssohn's pleasurable and innocuous symphonies.

Listener Notes for Mendelssohn's Symphony #5:
1) Why on earth would you release a CD that plays Mendelssohn's symphonies in this order?:

Disc 1: Symphony #1 and #5
Disc 2: Symphony #2
Disc 3: Symphony #3 and #4

Ironically, these symphonies are exactly in order, if you ignore their deceptive numbering and list them in the order in which they were written. Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony was actually his second, his Second was actually his third, and so on. Make sense? I didn't think so.

2) The Allegro section of the first movement sounds Bach-like in structure, but in temperament, it sounds like Mendelssohn trying to imitate Beethoven.

3) Recognize the theme of the second movement? It's the hymn "Away in a Manger."

4) I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the short but sweet third movement. It's a pleasure to listen to the tightly restrained emotion of the string section.

5) Yet another familiar music alert: do you recognize the key theme of the final movement? It's the well-known hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" which should be familiar to most Protestants.