Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D

Laura: What are you listening to?
Dan: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
L: Which one?
D: He only wrote one.
L: So Violin Concerto Number 1 then?
D: Uh, well, just "Violin Concerto." I think.

If you thought the critical reaction to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was bad, wait until you hear about the abuse heaped upon his Violin Concerto.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Itzhak Perlman, Violin
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto No. 1
RCA/Papillon, 1987

Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Leopold Auer, a famous violinist of the time, Auer refused to play it, considering it too technically difficult. Later, violinist Adolf Brodsky, a fellow Russian, performed the work for an audience in Vienna in 1881--and the audience hissed (apparently, booing didn't become popular in Europe until years later).

Worse still were the critical reviews. As the (uncredited) liner notes accompanying this CD tell it, "the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick" said:

..."the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue" and that the concerto "brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear."

I wonder what this guy would have said after hearing Paganini's Caprices.

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto:
1) Could there be a bigger contrast between the enormous, hippopotamus-like opening of the Piano Concert No. 1 and the quiet opening of this work?

2) Does anyone else find off-putting Perlman's excessive use of vibrato? I feel like I want to go up to him and say, "dude, just play the notes, okay?" It's disappointing when musicians (at any level, not just the pros) layer so much affectation on top of their playing that it detracts from the music.

3) One thing about Itzhak, though, is he has ferocious technical skills and he can make even preposterously difficult passages sound easy and effortless. A textbook example is the violin runs he plays from 4:40-4:52 in the first movement.

4) At the 7:15 mark of the first movement you can hear a particularly brutal "theme-and-variations" passage for the soloist. Even as a non-violinist I can tell that this passage is preposterously difficult. It sounds like something Paganini would write on a day when he was feeling ill will towards violin-playing mankind.

5) Listen at 9:47 and 9:57 in the first movement. Did you know a violin could play a note this high?

6) More ridiculously difficult parts: the solo violin passage from 12:57 to 13:54 contains difficult ascending runs. Perlman just blasts through them with no problem.

7) For headphone listeners and recording geeks only: the bassoon arpeggio in the opening of the second movement (it occurs at the 0:22-0:24 mark) jumps from the left speaker to the right for no apparent reason. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself watching the performance, you can almost see the musician teleport across the stage. Only the recording engineers and producers will know for sure, but this sounds to me like a splice of portions of two different takes. Also, at 0:37 in the same movement it sounds like there might be another splice when Itzhak comes in, another at 3:02 in the second movement, and yet another at 7:40 in the third movement.

I'm sure splicing like this is a common occurrence, simply because it's impractical to do repeated run-throughs of an entire symphony when you can just redo the dodgy passages and splice them in later. And of course it's nothing like what's done in pop music, where "singers" like Britney Spears will do 20 or more takes of any given song line in order to generate (out of pure luck?) the one take that actually sounds good and is sung on key.

9) Funny how an extremely minor (some would say unnoticeable) recording error can send a listener with sub-clinical OCD (uh, like myself) into a state where he's purely listening for recording errors and not really hearing the music at all. I had to put this disc away for a couple of days and tackle it again after a break.

10) The aggressive segue into the third movement is a real joy--and a bit of a shock, isn't it?

11) Itzhak's playing isn't anywhere near as clean in this movement as it is in the other movements. Then again, this movement truly does require him to do some serious yanking about and tearing asunder.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1 in B-Flat Minor

I replied that I would not alter a single note, and that I would have the concerto printed exactly as it stood.
--Tchaikovsky, reacting to Nikolai Rubinstein's harsh criticism of Piano Concerto #1

Today's CD contains one of the very few examples of CD liner notes that are not only comprehensible, but actually fun to read.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Misha Dichter, Piano
Piano Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto
RCA/Papillon, 1987

In a (sadly uncredited) essay, readers learn the story about the reaction Tchaikovsky received when he showed his first piano concerto to his boss at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolai Rubenstein:

"Rubinstein excoriated the work after a private hearing.... Tchaikovsky was pitilessly flayed for what Rubenstein charged was tawdry, plagiaristic and unpianistic. The irate pedagogue even went to the piano and burlesqued page after page."

Tchaikovsky then did what any self-respecting genius would do: he got a second opinion. He sent it to the famous German pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow, who loved the work so much that he took it with him on a concert tour of America.

It only adds to the irony that Rubenstein eventually changed his mind and came to appreciate this work. There's no accounting for taste, is there?

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1:
1) Who doesn't find the first 30 seconds of this concerto familiar to the point of parody? And what is it about Tchaikovsky's music that makes it so easy to parody? In fact, I'd go so far to argue that this concerto, along with the love theme from Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture, are three of the top four "familiar to the point of parody" classical music works (the fourth? It has to be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony).

2) After learning of the deep cynicism behind his 1812 Overture, I can't help but listen for additional cynical musical devices and other compositional tricks Tchaikovsky might have used in this work. Quite frankly, I couldn't hear any.

3) It's interesting to listen to such a ponderous and lengthy first movement (more than 20 minutes), followed by two pipsqueak movements of less than seven minutes each.

4) Listen from 10:00 to 10:43 in the first movement: have you ever heard such tension and energy build in the middle of a movement? And then it's followed by an unexpected letdown when the orchestra cuts out and the piano takes over.

5) Bad playing alert: at 12:32-12:37 in the first movement, the trombone has a prominent part and he blows it, with high school-caliber play and no sense of phrasing or control.

6) Forgive me for saying this, but I come down on Rubenstein's side of the argument (rather than von Bulow's) on the quality of this concerto. To me, there's just too much pounding away, too much instantaneous grandeur for me to enjoy this work. I'd be curious to hear other opinions, however, and I'd love to hear the opinions of any piano players out there who can comment knowledgeably on the joys (or miseries) of performing this work.

7) The second movement is an example of why I prefer Tchaikovsky at his least pretentious. His simple and beautiful melodies are more compelling to me than his grandiosity. Recall how Liszt called the second movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata "a flower poised between two abysses"? This movement is more like flower poised behind a hippopotamus.

8) For those of you who are curious, the subtitle for the third movement, allegro con fuoco, doesn't mean, uh, what you might think it means. It means to play quickly and in a fiery and energetic style (or, literally, fast with fire).

9) The third movement is an excellent example of the gift Tchaikovsky had for adapting folk tunes into new and compelling classical music music (this gift was shared by his fellow Russian contemporaries too, including Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky).

10) The final few passages of the third movement make for an amazing climax. First you have the build from 4:46 to 5:29, then a slight reduction in tension when the piano takes over at 5:30, then more build of tension until the huge entry of the full orchestra at 5:46. My head was about to explode!

...and then I realized I had the volume turned up just a little too high on my headphones.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saint Saens: Third Symphony (the "Organ" symphony), Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Saint-Saens knows everything, but he lacks inexperience.
--Hector Berlioz

It's safe to say that Camille Saint-Saens' life was far more interesting than his music.
James Levine and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 "Organ"
Dukas: L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1987
He was a true polymath: a musical prodigy, a scientist, a philosopher, a travel writer, a poet and a composer. He lived a life filled with tragedy: when Saint-Saens was in his early forties, his two-and-a-half-year-old son died in a fall from the balcony of his Paris apartment. Just six weeks later, his other son died of pneumonia at just seven months of age.

And three years after these incomprehensible tragedies, he walked out on his wife--in the middle of a vacation they were taking together! He left a note for her at their hotel and simply left.

Today we'll go over Saint-Saens' third and final symphony, widely known as the Organ Symphony. It's an enjoyable symphony with some interesting and unusual features, and it is probably the composer's best-known work. However, it is not a work I'd rank among my top classical music favorites.

I think most classical music critics would agree with me. My classical music bible, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, backhandedly refers to Saint-Saens' "slick, pseudo-Classical forms, and their refreshing neatness." And the liner notes accompanying this CD (which you would think would be a tad more promotional) contain this harsh gem: "...the symphony lacks the profundity of other 19th Century masterpieces."

Last, we'll also go over a few listener notes for the other work on this CD, Paul Dukas' forgettable The Sorcereror's Apprentice.

Listener notes for Saint-Saens' Third Symphony:
1) This symphony has an unusual structure, with just two movements rather than the more typical four. And yet the two movements have a substructure that roughly corresponds to a traditional four-movement symphony: the first movement has two primary parts, and the second movement begins with a Scherzo (albeit a highly unusual one, see below) and ends with a finale. Thus this work could easily be seen and heard as a four-movement symphony.

2) Another (somewhat) unusual feature: this symphony has an introduction lasting more than a minute. It doesn't add much to the work in my opinion, and a greater composer would consider the intro to be filler and strip it out. Beethoven, for example, never wrote symphonies with superfluous features like this.

3) That said, Saint-Saens can still write some darn good brass parts. Two examples: 4:30-4:50 in the first movement, and much of Track 4 (the second portion of the second movement).

4) The last minute of the first movement sounds like background music to a TV drama--something you'd hear on The Avengers perhaps.

5) You might ask, after ten minutes of this symphony, where the heck is this organ everybody's talking about? It makes a very quiet entrance in Track 2 (the third part of the first movement), but wait....

6) Track 2 is moving and emotional, and strangely, when I'm listening to this part of the symphony, I have this powerful feeling that I'm my younger self, at about age 8, sitting in church, and about to stand up and sing a hymn accompanied by our church's old $800 warbling electric organ. It's simply amazing how music can have such a powerful sensory force that it can literally transport you elswhere (or elsewhen).

7) I particularly like the Scherzo movement, with its quick tempo, shocking minor key and even more shocking pick-up-note-based motifs. I do feel like this portion of the symphony cribs stylistically from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

8) And then we have a piano? Listen at the 1:36 mark in the second movement (Track 3). I thought this was an organ symphony!

9) I told you to wait for the organ, and I hope when you hear the huge entrance it makes in the finale (at the opening seconds of track 4), the wait was worth it. All I could say was whoa. Brainsplitting.

Listener notes for Dukas' L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorceror's Apprentice):
1) A couple of words on this forgettable work. I don't understand why it's included on this CD, other than to make buyers feel less ripped off by buying a CD that only has 47 minutes of music on it (without Dukas' work included, this CD would be only 36 minutes long). But why not include another work by Saint-Saens? Ah, that would probably require extra effort to record another symphony, wouldn't it? Much easier to drop in some unrelated recording that's already made and sitting on file somewhere.

2) If it weren't for Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the famous animated film Fantasia,this work would be utterly forgotten by our culture by now. It's interesting how an icon of pop culture can overwhelm and co-opt a work like this, isn't it?

3) Finally, somebody clearly placed a microphone too close to the conductor during the recording of this work, giving listeners the distinct pleasure of hearing conductor James Levine muttering, grunting and groaning on a few places in this work (most notably at 6:03-6:30 and 8:00-8:11). Given his fashion proclivities for bad hair and worse glasses, I bet it would be fun to watch him bouncing and caterwauling all over the podium during a live performance.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas

He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled dreams, the harsh better wail of Gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all, the wiry tension of the Spanish dance.
--Ralph Kirkpatrick, harpsichordist and Scarlatti biographer

Quite frankly, it's pure luck that any of Domenico Scarlatti's beautiful music survived at all.
Ivo Pogorelich, piano
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Scarlatti: Sonaten
Deutsche Grammophon, 1992
The original manuscripts of his famous harpsichord sonatas were discarded upon his death, and if it weren't for his wife who had seen to it that his work was copied, his entire oeuvre would likely have disappeared down the memory hole.

Worse, even those copies were ignored for more than a century.

Scarlatti was born into an extremely musical family in Italy, and he was a startlingly talented harpsichordist. But it wasn't until he left Italy to be the private teacher of a princess in Portugal's royal court (the gifted harpsichordist and future queen of Portugal, Maria Barbara) that his genius for composition began to shine.

Scarlatti composed some 600 sonatas for his star pupil, but only published some 30 during his lifetime, dedicating them to the King of Portugal. A deeply unpretentious man, Scarlatti modestly named the opus Exercises for the Harpsichord, as if it were some forgettable book of etudes.

Ironically, Scarlatti's works didn't find a wide audience until a century after his death. In 1838, Carl Czerny (once Beethoven's pupil and a gifted pianist and composer in his own right) edited and published some 200 hundred of Scarlatti's sonatas. And in the early 1900s another 300 of his sonatas became available, thanks to the Italian composer Alessandro Longo.

Listener Notes for Scarlatti's Sonatas:
(One preliminary note: I'll be using Kirkpatrick numbering for these sonatas)
1) This is the second time I've had the privilege of listening to Ivo Pogorelich: I wrote about his performance of Chopin's stunningly beautiful Preludes more than a year ago. Today's CD features an older, slightly more contemplative Ivo--at least that's what we're apparently supposed to think, judging by the cover photograph of him gazing sadly at us out of the corners of his eyes from what appears to be an Elizabethan-era parlor. One of the more amusingly pretentious examples of classical music cover art.

2) Sonata #20 (Track 1 on this CD): Obviously, these works were written for harpsichord, not piano. And Pogorelich plays this sonata in a particularly bouncy, staccato style, as if he's trying replicate the harpsichord's sound on his piano.

3) Another harpsichord vs. piano thought: the harpsichord has no dynamic range--it can only play notes at one volume level. The piano, however, allows the musician to change volume by striking the keys more or less firmly (hence the derivation of the piano's original name, the pianoforte). In fact, the piano enables many phrasing subtleties that cannot be played on a harpsichord. Thus it bears asking, how many artistic liberties is Pogorelich taking when he performs these works? And are they justifiable liberties?

4) Sonata #9 (Track 3): Have you ever heard this many trills in four minutes' worth of music?

5) These sonatas are all 3-5 minutes long, perfect for the modern listener's attention span, and a lot more profound and relaxing than most of the popular music out there.

6) Sonata #1 (Track 5) is a personal favorite of mine. I like the suspense, the minor key and the various flourishes and idiosyncrasies of this work.

7) Did the producers of this CD scramble the numerical order of these sonatas just to annoy me? Here's the order of sonatas: 20, 135, 9, 119, 1, 87, 98, 13, etc. It looks like some kind of Fibonacci sequence.

8) Sonata #13 (Track 8) is supposed to be played fast, at least according to the work's subtitle, Presto, but Pogorelich takes it easy and plays it at a tempo more like the Allegro of Sonata #1. More artistic liberties.

9) Sonata #8 (Track 9) sounds like something Chopin or Schumann might write--one hundred years after Scarlatti lived! Admittedly, this might be a function of Pogorelich's choice of a ponderously slow tempo rather than the Allegro marked on the piece.

10) Sonata #487 (Track 13) is another personal favorite. It sounds like an Eastern European folk tune, with dissonant chords, interesting syncopation--and lots of grace notes, trills and embellishments throughout.

And when the final track ends, all I want to do is figure out where I can more of these amazing sonatas. After all, there are 600 of them!

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