Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Shostakovich: First Symphony

I can't help it. I just don't like Shostakovich.

This is the second time I've tried my hand at a Shosty symphony, after listening to and heartily disliking his Eleventh Symphony.

Unfortunately, I felt no emotional connection to his First Symphony either. The music seems random and arbitrary to me--and to be honest, I even caught myself rolling my eyes at a few of Shosty's musical devices. And as I'll show in the listener notes, it's more film score music than symphony.
Leonard Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7
Deutsche Grammophone, 1989

Lucky me: I've still got three more of his symphonies left to listen to: his Second, Seventh and Twelfth.

A little historical background before we get to the listener notes: Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony in 1925 at the shockingly young age of 18. It was his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory.

Audiences loved it. In the words of my Essential Canon of Classical Music, the First Symphony "was an unexpected triumph, and overnight Shostakovich became a hero of Soviet music, lauded as the first illustrious child of the [1917 Russian] Revolution."

Eventually, the Soviets would come to their senses and decide classical music was a petty bourgeois pretension, and the Soviet regime turned on Shostakovich in the 1930s. The composer drifted in and out of favor with his government over the remainder of his life.

Listener notes for Shostakovich's First Symphony:
1) Right from the opening moments of this work, I have misgivings about this symphony and the fact that it sounds like incidental music for a film. As we've seen before, this is a common criticism of Shostakovich's symphonies.

2) Regarding the arbitrariness of this music: the first movement features passages of strangely loud and then strangely soft music that seem to follow each other for shock value rather than any structural or musical reason. It all seems directionless and emotionless.

3) "Buh, buh-buh-buh buhhhh, budup, budup, buh-dahhhhh." I suppose that's the primary melody of the first movement? Yeesh.

4) Cinematic music alert in the second movement: at the 0:58 mark in the second movement, there's a flute duet with a a snare drum, triangle and strings playing in the background. This passage could easily be background music for an episode of the original Star Trek. In fact, I'm thinking specifically of this episode, and the scene when Kirk gets zapped after he falls into the obelisk (view from 4:50-5:07).

5) Interesting to hear the piano appear out of nowhere to play a solo part at the 3:07 mark in the second movement. Unfortunately, that part later devolves into really cheesy movie music from 3:58 until the end of the movement.

6) There is an admittedly fun trumpet part at 3:35 in the second movement. I'll give Shosty credit for that.

7) There's yet another passage in the fourth movement (it runs from the 2:00 minute mark to about the 2:48 mark) that is in my view a perfect example of Shostakovich's movie music. Listen to it and tell me why you don't agree.

8) And finally, as if to prove my case, there's a classic cinematic flourish at 6:30 in the fourth movement: a melodramatic sfrorzando from the entire orchestra, followed by.... solo tympani! If that isn't self-caricaturing music, I don't know what is. Consider me a petty bourgeois listener, but I'm just not sure what the Soviet regime saw in this symphony.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Piano Music of Robert Schumann: Klavierwerke: Sonata #2 for Piano, Night Visions, Three Romances and Forest Scenes

Today, at long last, I'll finally cover the fourth and final disc of my four-CD recording of Schumann's piano works performed by Wilhelm Kempff. Here are discs 1, 2 and 3 if you missed them.

I've really missed Schumie and his incomparable solo piano compositions. And what's amazing to me about these works is how complex they are. It's actually easier for me to follow a symphony--with all its dozens of different instruments--than it is for me to follow a single pianist performing one of Schumann's works.

Despite repeated listens to each of the CDs in this four disc collection, I feel like I've only scratched at the surface of this music.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975

Before we get into the listener notes, let me say without reservation that I highly, highly recommend this exceptional recording to anyone interested in classical piano music.

Listener notes for Schumann's Sonata for Piano #2 in G minor:
1) Once again, it's amazing how many voices can sing out from just ten fingers and one piano. Fortunately, this extremely complex music doesn't have the uniform, machine-made sound of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

Listener notes for Nachtstucke (Night Visions):
2) I can't help but imagine ghouls or zombies traipsing to and fro when I listen to the first movement of Night Visions (Track 5, Disc 4).

3) In the second movement (Track 6), I can see happy little sprites traipsing all over the place. And then in the third movement (Track 7), it sounds like the ghouls, spirits and sprites are all holding hands and doing some sort of frolicsome dance together in a field in some kind of a creepy dreamworld. Or something.

4) The fourth movement is so sad and mournful, and such a contrast to the first three movements that it hardly seems to belong.

Listener notes for Drei Romanzen (Three Romances):
5) Interesting use of dissonant chords in many parts of the main theme of the first movement (Track 9). You can hear them right away in first minute, and they are repeated in the final minute.

6) I wonder what love state Schumann had in mind for each of these movements. Perhaps the first movement with all the dissonance was a lover's quarrel, and the second movement (Track 10) is the mournful separation, and the third and final movement (Track 11) is the playful reunion of the lovers?

Listener notes for Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):
7) The first of the Forest Scenes, Entritt ("entry" in English, Track 12) is possibly the most beautiful and elegant piece of music I've ever heard in my entire life.

8) At the 0:17 mark of Track 14 (Einsame Blumen/Lonely Flowers) it sounds like Kempff makes a bad mistake. However, the same note pattern recurs at 1:01, so unless he deliberately made the mistake twice, Schumann probably wrote it that way. For a piece about flowers, it's a bit jarring.

9) I'm wondering what Schumann meant, exactly, by naming the fourth Forest Scene "Place of Evil Fame" (Verrufene Stelle).

10) Finally, Wilhelm Kempff's playing is extremely clean throughout this disc. I didn't hear a single error or missed note--in contrast to the (admittedly few) stray mistakes on disc 1.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Schumann: First Symphony

To be sure, a Schumann score is not as foolproof, as "self-rising," as a score of Wagner or Tchaikovsky or Richard Strauss, nor has the musical substance of a Schumann symphony the kind of inexorable propulsion of some Beethoven symphonies, which will survive even a shabby performance relatively unharmed. But is it really Schumann's fault that it takes a little trouble on the part of the conductor and orchestra to make his symphonies come off?
--George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, 1946-1970

Schumann didn't just write music for the piano, obviously. But there is a bit of a debate as to the importance of his four symphonies.
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture

CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996

Fortunately, George Szell worshipped Schumann's four symphonies, and he conducted and recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra what is widely considered to be one of the best recordings ever of Schumann's First Symphony.Today's post is dedicated to that recording, which I highly, highly recommend.

A few introductory words about the Cleveland Orchestra: While Cleveland might be better known these days for its appallingly bad pro football team, this underappreciated city actually has a world-class orchestra. And Clevelanders have George Szell to thank for this--under Szell's direction (some might say dictatorial control), Cleveland transformed from a competent regional symphony into one of the world's finest orchestras.

Listener notes for Schumann's First Symphony:
1) It's almost shocking to go back to a "traditional-sounding" classical music symphony immediately after experiencing the overwhelming power and weight of Mahler's Third. Only some 55 years separate the compositions, but they sound centuries apart, don't they? I will say it's more relaxing to listen to a symphony when you don't have to keep a fearful grip on the volume dial.

2) I can see how this symphony could sound like a Mozart knockoff to a first-time listener (this is one of the criticisms leveled at Schumann's symphonies), but give it a chance and a few extra listens. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it's more complex and original than it sounds.

3) At 5:17 in the second movement (Track 2) what should be a beautiful passage played by the trombones gets mangled by poor intonation. Note that according to this CD's liner notes, this recording took place over two days--I'm surprised they didn't notice and re-record that passage. Cleveland is a better symphony than that.

4) A few comments about the particularly enjoyable third movement (the Scherzo): The main theme/motif of the third movement is quite interesting, especially when Schumann morphs it though major and minor keys. That creates quite a bit of tension and release.

5) Further, there are also several quite interesting meter changes in the third movement. At 1:19 in Track 3, the third movement shifts from 3/4 meter (that's the typical meter for a scherzo movement) into an unexpectedly lively 2/4 meter. At 2:42, it switches back to the original theme and meter. Then, at 3:21, we switch yet another meter, before returning back to the original theme once again at 4:24. Finally, there's a soft coda at very end of the movement, during which Szell takes all sorts of liberties with the tempo. This is one of the more interesting Scherzo movements I've ever heard.

6) The opening to the fourth movement sounds almost like a major scale! Admittedly, this movement sounds quite Mozart-like--at first. But listen at the 4:14 mark, when an entirely different theme with a very un-Mozart like tension begins.

7) Readers who are familiar with my writing on the Philadelphia Orchestra will know that it's a sadly rare pleasure for me to listen to clarinet solos that are played completely in tune.

8) Finally, getting back to the criticism that this symphony sounds like a Mozart knockoff, the very last minute of the fourth movement sounds, unfortunately, exactly like something Mozart would write. I'll be quite curious to see if Schumann's other symphonies (I'll be writing posts on all four) share this trait at all.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mahler: Third Symphony

But I have surely written you that I am at work on a large composition. You cannot believe how this claims one's entire being, and how one is often so deep in it that for the outer world one is as if dead. Try to conceive a work so vast that in it the entire world is mirrored--one is, so to speak, only an instrument on which the whole universe plays. (I have explained this to you often, and you must accept it, if you really wish to understand me. Everyone who wishes to live with me must learn this. In such moments I no longer belong to myself.) ...These are fearful birth pains the creator of such a work suffers, and before all this organizes itself, builds itself up, and ferments in his brain, it must be preceded by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being dead to the outer world. My symphony will be something the world has not as yet heard!
--Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his lover Anna von Mildenburg, describing the gestation of his Third Symphony--and responding to her complaints that he was not writing to her often enough (quote thanks to The Essential Canon of Classical Music and Composers On Music: Eight Centuries of Writings).

I've been looking forward to listening to this monster of a symphony for a long time, but in a way I had to get up the courage to do so:

* It takes up 2 CDs.
* It has six movements (initially, Mahler considered a seventh).
* It lasts more than 90 minutes.
* And the first movement alone is a symphony in itself, at more than 33 minutes.

I can't imagine the courage it must have taken to write it.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Deutsche Grammophon, 1999

There is a fine line, however, between earth-shattering drama and melodrama, and in this symphony Mahler repeatedly stomps over that line--especially in the first movement.

And that flair for melodrama apparently infected the producers of this recording too: the final track on this CD (Track 19) is entitled "Applause"--and it is three minutes and twenty seconds long. Yes, you heard that right. There's a more than three-minute-long track, deliberately placed at the end of this symphony, that contains applause. Clapping.

And yet I love this symphony like very few in my collection. That's how it is with Mahler--you have to embrace the melodrama. What a fool I've been to let this CD sit on my shelf, collecting dust, for so long!

Listener Notes for Mahler's Third Symphony:
1) The Berlin Philharmonic must have some monster French horn players. They really let it rip in the opening passage.

2) An occupational hazard of a live recording: somebody on stage accidentally drops something during the pianissimo section at 0:42 in Track 1. I'm sure we'll hear a more than typical number of mistakes, as well as--shudder--coughs, from the audience.

3) There's a big trumpet mistake late in the first movement (at 1:39 in Track 8 on CD 1). In his "buh buh buh buhhhhhh!" part, he really whiffs the last note.

4) This first movement is truly a symphony within a symphony. At 32 minutes, it's materially longer than Beethoven's entire Fifth Symphony. Heck, Haydn could fit three or four "symphonies" into 32 minutes! But it does beg a question: How many times, for example, should you incorporate major musical climaxes, um, in your first movement? And after three, four, or even five major climaxes, what could possibly be left to say for the remaining hour of the symphony? After I finished the first movement, I couldn't believe that I had only heard one-third of this work.

5) Whoo. Onto the second movement--only 64 minutes to go! This is not a symphony for the attention-span-challenged.

6) The second movement is so quaint and beautiful, and so radically different in tone and style from the first movement, that it seems preposterous that the same composer could have written both.

7) The third movement has to be the kookiest Scherzo movement I've ever heard. It sounds like something out of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

8) A piece of trivia regarding the off-stage trumpet in the third movement (begins at 0:12 in Track 7 of Disc 2): That's actually not a trumpet, or at least it's not supposed to be. It's a flugelhorn, a brass instrument very similar to a trumpet but slightly larger and more mellow-sounding. At the beginning of Track 9, you'll hear a trumpet come in with a gentle call which is immediately answered by the off-stage flugelhorn--those two passages give you a good sense of the difference in sound between the two instruments.

9) I'm very pleased with the cough-related behavior of this audience. I noticed just a few barely-audible stray coughs during the third movement, another couple in the fourth movement, and that was about all. Further proof that the Europeans behave better than Americans in the symphony hall.

10) Lots of elements of the fourth movement are downright ghoulish. The vocal soloist singing in an unusually low register (the singer, Anna Larson, is a contralto, which is the lowest of female singing registers--if she were a man she could sing a mean tenor part), the really low notes from the bass viols, the odd glissandos (first the oboe, then the saxophone), the lyrics (drawn from Nietsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra), and then a children's choir entering with cheery major chords--that then warp into creepy-sounding minor keys. This movement is almost too much to take.

11) I think if you want to understand why musicians and audiences worldwide have deep affection for Mahler, listen to the fourth and fifth movements of this symphony. It's hard to believe that this much emotion and tension can take place in music.

12) Holy cow on the ripping brass parts in the final movement, especially towards the end of Track 16, and at the very end in Track 18. No brass player on earth would feel anything but love for this symphony.

13) And I have to eat my words from earlier in this post when I picked on the "Applause" track. It belongs there. It totally does. I understand now.

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