Friday, July 29, 2016
Alan Fletcher is the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, one of America’s leading classical music events. He has every reason to be proud of the festival’s history and achievements; but he’s less enamoured of his country’s track record in promoting the works of certain 20th-century American symphonists. Last month he elaborated on his thoughts in an article for The Guardian , citing the superior efforts of leading British orchestras, who seem to programme major works by British composers much more frequently than American orchestras do for their counterparts. Fletcher refers to a specific list of neglected composers that includes Walter Piston, George Antheil, Peter Mennin, Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman and Roger Sessions; Fletcher himself was a student of Sessions. He outlined how “our Aspen festival will this summer do its utmost to restore some important music and an important heritage to the repertoire.” I thought the Naxos catalogue could also do its bit by showcasing seven symphonies by those seven composers. First up is Charles Ives (1874–1954), who initially made a career in insurance, reserving his activities as a composer for his leisure hours. Ironically, by the time that his music had begun to arouse interest, his own inspiration and energy as a composer had waned, so that for the last thirty years of his life he wrote little, while his reputation grew. Ives’ First Symphony (8.559175 ) was his Yale University graduation piece and for a composer barely over twenty it’s an astonishing work, maybe not picture-perfect, but a revelation of a young genius first flexing his orchestral muscles. Here are the closing few minutes of the work , and if you can’t help thinking ‘Dvořák…? Tchaikovsky…?’ or stop tapping your feet, we’ll quite understand. Roger Sessions (1896–1985) was a pupil of Ernest Bloch in New York before spending time in Europe, where he met Berg, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Milhaud. The première of his Second Symphony (9.80248 ) took place in 1947 under Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony. The work is dedicated “To the Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”, who died while Sessions was composing the Adagio tranquillo. Here’s the second movement , Allegretto capriccioso, in its entirety. Don’t wander too far. It lasts less than a couple of minutes. Peter Mennin’s (1923–1983) Third Symphony (8.559718 ) was completed on his 23rd birthday, in 1946. The success of the piece led to the composer’s appointment to New York’s Juilliard School of Music and the beginning of a long string of commissions. Mennin described the passionate slow movement as “an extended song…making use of sustained voice-weaving.” Here’s an extract . George Antheil (1900–1959) earned notoriety with his 1925 Ballet Mécanique (8.559060 ), composed for an orchestra of percussion instruments, player pianos, electric buzzers and even an aeroplane propeller. His Fourth Symphony (8.559033 ) was written following his experience as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily News. Antheil wrote that the work was written “during a period when the entire future of the world hung in balance, its first movement undoubtedly [reflecting] my tense and troubled state of mind while writing it; but every day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the Pacific…the second movement is tragic—news of Lidice and the horrors in Poland had just come in—while the third, the Scherzo, is more like a brutal joke, the joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn of the tide at Stalingrad and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory .” The Fifth Symphony (8.559609 ) of Roy Harris (1898–1979), also written against the backcloth of the war in Europe, was inspired by the Russian people’s stand against the Nazis and their eventual triumph. Dedicated to ‘the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics’, the symphony’s first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky in February 1943 was simultaneously broadcast to the Soviet Union. Here’s the dark opening of the second movement . Walter Piston’s (1894–1976) Sixth Symphony (8.559161 ) dates from 1955. His association with the Boston Symphony (for whom this work was written) began in 1926; he wrote a number of works expressly for the orchestra. Piston wrote: “While writing my Sixth Symphony, I came to realize that this was a rather special situation in that I was writing for one designated orchestra, one that I had grown up with, and that I knew intimately. Each note set down sounded in the mind with extraordinary clarity, as though played immediately by those who were to perform the work. On several occasions it seemed that the melodies were being written by the instruments themselves as I followed along. I refrained from playing even a single note of this symphony on the piano.” Listen here to part of the opening movement . And so to the Seventh Symphony (8.559255 ) of our seventh and final composer, William Schuman (1910–1992). It, too, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and written in 1960 to mark its 75th season. We’ll end simply by letting the music of the second movement speak for itself. The Aspen Music Festival and School 2016 runs from 30 June – 21 August.
There was always a lot of music in my home, when I grew up. Perhaps that is the source of my love of the sound of the viola. On this new recording we hear a fairly unknown artist to American audiences, presenting unfamiliar music from Easter Europe. The violist is Kristina Fialova: And the music serves as an Introduction to the following compositions: Bodorova: Dzha more Godár: O Crux – Meditation Khachaturian: Sonata-Song for Viola Solo Penderecki: Cadenza for solo viola Rozsa: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 44 Stravinsky: Elegy, for solo viola All performed by Kristina Fialova (viola) The virtuosic young Czech viola player Kristina Fialová presents contemporary and 20th-century works by Rózsa, Godár, Penderecki, Khachaturian, Stravinsky and Bodorová. These are fine performances of music by composers from middle and Eastern Europe. Here is Ms. Fialove performing the viola sonata by Paul Hindemith:
There is an art of listening, when you listen to Beethoven or Mozart and so on, you listen, you don't try to interpret it, unless you are romantic, sentimental and all that. You absorb, you listen, there is some extraordinary movement going on in it, great silence, great depth and all that. So similarly if you can listen, not only with the hearing of the ear, but deeply, not interpret, not translate, just listen.That quote comes from a 1985 TV interview with Jiddu Krishnamurti. There is some serious listening talent in the photo. It shows Aldous Huxley - who famously recommended that "if you ever use mescaline or LSD in therapy ... try the effect of the [Bach] B-minor suite" - kneeling in the foreground, while standing from left to right are Krishnamurti, Igor & Vera Stravinsky, Maria Huxley, and Radha Rajagopal Sloss. The photo was taken in 1949 at a picnic in Wrightwood, California. Radha Rajagopal Sloss was the daughter of the American born Rosalind Rajagopal, who was a director of the Happy Valley School in Ojai founded by Krishnamurti and wife of his business manager, editor and close associate D. Rajagopal. Krishnamurti died in 1986, and Radha Rajagopal Sloss alleges in her 1991 book Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti that her mother had a clandestine sexual relationship with Krishnamurti lasting twenty-five years. Rosalind Rajagopal was a close friend of the celebrated Hungarian-born pianist Lili Kraus, while Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti recounts how "Rosalind's former tennis days stood her in good stead too for she found new friendships through this sport with, among others, the composer Arnold Schoenberg..." At the core of Krishnamurti's teachings - see video clip below - is the message that "...there is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything. And to understand is to transform what is". In its early days Happy Valley School was supported by the southern California creative community which included Arnold Schoenberg and Lili Kraus. Pau Casals was a friend of Krishnamurti's and played for him in Rome in 1963, Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha performed at a talk given by Krishnamurti at Brockwood, England in 1975, and Igor Stravinsky moved in his circle. We can only speculate as to what subliminal influence Krishnamurti's radical teachings had on these free thinkers. Header photo via Radha Sloss. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
The pianist Fazil Say, who has been pursued through the courts by the Erdogan government for his outspoken atheism, has landed a major deal. He’ll be recording Mozart sonatas for Warner, a conglomerate that owns his very earliest releases on Teldec. Release below. Renowned pianist and composer Fazıl Say has signed a new recording contract with Warner Classics. A household name in his native Turkey, Say has been hailed internationally not only as “a pianist of genius”, but as “one of the greatest artists of the 21st century” (Le Figaro). The signing sees Say return to the Warner roster some 18 years after he made his first acclaimed recordings for the Teldec label in 1998 – from Mozart and Bach to Stravinsky, alongside his own contemporary piano masterpiece, Black Earth. “Fazıl Say is one of the greatest pianists of our era; he is also renowned composer whose unique style creates a scintillating blend of classical and jazz influences,” said Alain Lanceron, President of Warner Classics and Erato. “This is above all an artist engaged in the world around him; a humanist who never stops championing freedom of expression. To see him return to his original label family, with inspired recording projects that will captivate his loyal fans and new listeners alike, is for us a source of great pride.” Fazıl Say adds: “I’m very happy to be once again a part of Warner. Warner Music launched my recording career twenty years ago when I was a Teldec artist. We now have this wonderful opportunity to record Mozart, as well as future projects ranging from Chopin to Satie, to my own music as a composer.” Say renews his partnership with Warner Classics with a milestone project particularly dear to him: the completeMozart Piano Sonatas cycle, for release in September as a 6-CD boxed set and via digital/streaming platforms.
At Prom 7, Marc Minkowski conducted the BBC SO in a programme that demonstrated just how insular some British audiences can be. French style is different and needs to be understood on its own terms. Minkowski's punchy, vigorous approach underlines the importance of understanding the roots of idiom. Historically-informed performance isn't about quaint instruments, its about the spirit of music which refreshes itself in creative performance. Minkowski, like so many conductors of his generation and before, learned from baroque and early music that all music was once "new" and can still be new, performed with intelligence and with a sense of context. Gabriel Fauré's Shylock Suite (1889) for example is about as true to Shakespeare as Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet or Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette. Not "English" but endearing. Urbane and cosmopolitan, this Shylock's a man of the world, not a villain. Minkowski began with the Entr'acte, with its striking brass fanfare from which emerges a seductive violin melody. introducing the Chanson and then the Madrigal, both lovely songs for tenor Julien Behr. . We're in magical night-time Venice where troubadours serenade ladies in the moonlight. Dancing figures evoke starlight, or the play of light on water, and the Finale endw with a bright, cheerful flourish. Minkowski describes Stravinsky's Pulchinella Suite (1922) as "Bonsai....a miniature Rite of Spring" emphasizing its modernity. Though the ballet connects to baroque and commedia dell'arte memes, it was absolutely of its time, choreographed by Diaghilev, with designs by Picasso. In an orchestral suite, dance imperatives aren't quite as central as in the ballet, but idea of form and precision remains. Minowski gets articulate balance from the BBC SO . Fast flurries suggest movement and energy, violins are strummed like guitars, and bowed with angular zing. "Gentle arrogance" says Minkowski on the BBC rebroadcast. Listen to the trio where the bassoon blows sassy raspberries - this is Cubist baroque ! Stravinsky's neo-classicism was poised but very individual. Yet again, the connection between period-inspired performance and modern music. Minkowski made the point further by following Stravinsy Pulchinella with Francis Poulenc Stabat Mater (1950), inspired, in part by the Black Madonna of Rocamadur. How angular it is, worlds away from Michelangelo's Pietà in its Vatican splendour. It's much closer in spirit to the "primitivism" of the Fauves, Cubists and the avant garde of Poulenc's youth. Ancient and modern, yet again. There are odd quirks, here, even the suggestion of medieval music and the harsh terrain of the Languedoc. As a meditation upon loss, Poulenc's Stabat Mater is unsentimental. Faith proves itself when it is tested, and in this lies its strength as Dialogues des Carmélites demonstrates. The tenderness of the quiet passages, and those in which the soprano (Julie Fuchs) sings. This tenderness offers a degree of solace, but also serves to underline the inevitable fate that lies ahead for all. In the final moments of the Quando Corpus, though, the soprano's voice blazes upwards, joined by the choir and orchestra, reminding us that for the devout, there is hope. Personally I'd prefer a craggier performance, which Minkowski could deliver well, but the refinement the BBC Singers and BBCSO produced was very moving. Please see also my piece on Stravinsky's late works and musings on the nature of Faith.
Royal Albert Hall, London Marc Minkowski presented works with a Parisian connection by Fauré, Poulenc and Stravinsky, played with refinement by the BBC SymphonyMarking this year’s Shakespeare 400 anniversary is one of the themes of the Proms, and Marc Minkowski’s concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra included a rarely played work that did just that, though at one remove. In 1889, Fauré composed the incidental music for Shylock, a play by Edmond Haraucourt based more or less on The Merchant of Venice. A year later, the composer extracted a concert suite of six numbers from his score, and that is what Minkowski conducted, with the tenor Julien Behr brought in for the two vocal numbers, neither of which has much to do with the original play. Continue reading...
Igor Stravinsky (17 June 1882 - 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born, naturalized French, later naturalized American composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential composers of 20th century music. He was a quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the century. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1934 and a naturalized US citizen in 1945. In addition to the recognition he received for his compositions, he also achieved fame as a pianist and a conductor, often at the premieres of his works. Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The Rite, whose premiere provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design. In the 1950s he adopted serial procedures, using the new techniques over his last twenty years. Stravinsky's compositions of this period share traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form, of instrumentation, and of utterance.
Great composers of classical music