Friday, December 24, 2010

Sibelius - Symphonies 5 & 7

There's this idea that composers reflect the environments that surround them. Zemlinsky reflects the queasy, whipped cream-rich sickness of fin de siècle Vienna, Falla reflects the bright colours of the Mediterranean, and Sibelius reflects the cool purity of the snowy north.

Perhaps there's something in this, and perhaps it's just reductive, but it's been snowing here lately, and when I go out what I notice more than anything is the quiet. This must be partly because heavy snow is uncommon here and so when it does come things simply stop - roads, trains, industry, all fall silent (peculiarly, this break from life's monotony is usually portrayed as a bad thing). But the nights, too, are quieter than they were. Where before speech bounced off the pavement and scattered, now it hangs in front of your face, you hear it clear and close. Thoughts, too, stay with you, are undispersed. Missed chances, regrets, hope. Awful, it is, and beautiful.

And this has drawn me even closer to Sibelius' seventh symphony, a piece I was already virtually obsessed with. It begins with the simplest of gestures: a tap on the timpani and a scale, the notes of C major, one leading necessarily to the next, forward motion, overlapping figures as woodwinds slide over strings sliding over brass (everything overlaps here, including the tempi, four movements merging into one). It's all about the creation and release of tension - perhaps this is true of all fancy music to some extent, but here you really feel it moment-to-moment. That opening scale is interrupted by an unexpected chord which slowly, slowly resolves back towards C major, before taking another turn away from it... and so the piece goes on. One constant is a slow fanfare-like call (first heard on the trombone at 5:25 into the first track of the symphony on this recording) which recurs several times, always in C major.

Ultimately, it ends loudly, with slowly overlapping appoggiaturas - tension and release reduced to its simplest, and a satisfying reminder of that scale at the symphony's very beginning. But the most striking moment comes a few minutes earlier (at the beginning of the final track in this recording), when the strings are abandoned and left to swerve around each other and reconfigure space to make room for that horn call one last time. To me, this moment of coalescence is the climax of the piece, and the dynamic marking is mezzo forte. I don't know of another symphony where this is true. Pieces which fool you with false climaxes are common enough - the tension is increased again and again until the final outburst. But when the real high-point comes, it is almost always the loudest of all; here the real climax is not bigger, but stiller. All the tensions, the worry, the work, resolved for one moment of transcendent moderation.

As well as the seventh, this disc contains what is perhaps my favourite recording of the fifth symphony. Enough talk. Listen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

faure | piano quartets

might as well get it out of the way and mention that this release got several assloads of acclaim when it dropped back in 86: praise was lavished, rosettes were pinned, prestigious awards were won, etc. so you know — it's kind of a big deal.

but unlike lots of other big deals, this one's a big deal not because the performers give butt-quakingly passionate and technically virtuosic readings of compositions that one might reasonably put forward as references for their genre. it's a big deal because, um...

or... no, i'm sorry — that's precisely why it's a big deal. my mistake.

okay, so, starting over. here we have gabriel faure's two piano quartets. what keeps drawing me into these pieces is their continuity — though you might even say relentlessness — of melodic statement. tight-knit is one way of putting it. unremittingly inventive would be another. like some nut-job called out during a sneak preview performance of brahms's fourth symphony, one might get the feeling during these quartets of being beaten by an incredibly intelligent person. in the case of faure, it's all the more remarkable feeling like you've got to throw up your hands in surrender, since the deluge of sounds teeming down on your head are just inconceivably delicious.

meanwhile, i wouldn't want to give the impression that these quartets can't be listened to without maximal mental exertion. just saying, i once made the mistake of putting this album on when i was already completely exhausted, thinking i was in for a deeply relaxing experience, only to find my feeble intellect in a condition similar to a skater who's broken through the ice on a fast-moving river, swept under and away in the current. i know it seems like cuddly music, but i implore you, take caution!

to say something of domus and susan tomes, they deserve every bit of praise they've gotten for this recording. trying to imagine the concentration it must take to work through these pieces with such loving attention to detail just baffles me. i'd almost feel bad for them if they didn't do it with such an appreciable sense of adventure.

sibelius | string quartets

the string quartet in E major is very early work, very old-fashioned, and — as you'd expect during this period of the composer's artistic maturation — pretty jejune. still, it contains a number of moments when the counterpoint points to the sort of breathless, rhythmically mind-spinning style sibelius would develop in his symphonic works... mostly during the allegro 1st movement. then, 4 years later (1889) we get the A minor quartet, which shows sibelius moving out of the mid-18th century and into the... late 18th century. here, sibelius studies the romantic forms he would later manipulate to such marvelous effect. it made an impression on busoni, apparently: "we realized that we were in the presence of something far beyond the ordinary pupil".

it's on the second disc, in the B flat quartet (written only a year after the A minor), that sibelius advances well into the... early 19th century. and more into his own, to be fair. the third movement presto is actually quite lovely, bearing some of sibelius's genius for cultivating wild euphoria out of seemingly banal sentimental tensions.

the D minor quartet, written another 20 years later between the (by now internationally famous) composer's 3rd and 4th symphonies, seems to fall from the sky onto this collection — so little it bears in common with its disc-mates; as in, there's not much chance of mistaking whose hand was at work this time. the haunting, stark lines form with confidence out of what's become sibelius's hallmark post-romantic conception, casting their enchantment at fucking 30 degrees below zero. (i think fans of morton feldman who've up to now found it hard to detect in his music any overt strain of sibelius will probably be struck by the harmonic/temporal character of the adagio di molto). it's really a goddamn shame sibelius didn't write more chamber works during his mature period, as he'd intended to; this one's quickly working its way into my innermost circle of cherished quartets. the way the lines can be so articulate and yet so massively gestural at the same time — who doesn't love that? isn't it the very essence of how we want to be (mis)understood?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

guillaume dufay / o gemma lux

I'm still rather new to Dufay and just about any pre-Baroque composer, yet I can't help but feel compelled to share these fancies. Harmonia Mundi herein culls together thirteen compositions from the beginning of Dufay's career, toward the end of the Medieval period. These polyphonic pieces are the perfect Sunday morning comedown; as the sun peaks through the blinds, I can't think of a better compilation to wake me, cleansing me of weekend night sins (yeah, I attend church at my own apartment--suck it latter-day saints).

More than just a documentation of Guillaume Dufay's early period, these compositions are all of the isorhythmic motet style--some of the last, famous Medieval (early Renaissance) iteration of this form. The style is traditionally viewed as a very rigid one for its period, almost scientific. In the isorhythmic setting, a single parameter is chosen and is developed almost arithmetically. A single voice, denoted as the tenor, carries this progression, with the other voices following--in these thirteen compositions, the tenor is the instrumentation. Although that sounds emotionless, more akin to the construction of a mathematical sequence, the Huelgas Ensemble and Paul Van Nevel avoid miring in this technicality, providing spiritual, affirmative renditions. (

Thursday, August 19, 2010

j.s. bach | brandenburg concertos

well, we've been gathering cobwebs here in the dept of fancy people music writing, but i tell you it's time once again to buckle into our high-heeled loafers, fuss with our ruffly neck accoutrement, puff out our chests like dandified apes, and eschew any such pretense that essays to mitigate the pretense of fanciness.

and so, it is with great pleasure that i invite you to join me in appreciation of herr bach's brandenburg concertos. two recordings of them, in fact. why not. the first i came to was the pinnock / english concert recording from archiv, which immediately satisfied my desire for a brandenburg that was just totally infatuated with the music's ample provisions for lushness and virtuosity. if you want BIG FUCKING bach, yes, it's here, and it's big fucking wonderful. in the second, by martin pearlman & boston baroque, i found the spirit of the music — once unencumbered by such concerns — could be pretty freewheeling. i don't think i have a preference; just depends on the circumstances, i suppose. they're both period performances, incidentally, although for whatever reason the pearlman sounds a bit more periody to my ears... more idiosyncratic anyway (and probably more fun, too, for that matter... but, then again, what cares we for fun)

the music itself doesn't really need much introduction. pretty much anyone who's ever turned on the radio in the U.S. has at least heard part of the 6th concerto (lead-in music for american public media programs (thanks wikipedia, for reminding me where i was hearing that)). so, they're all like that — fruity and grandiloquent in the most delightful ways: fancy dances for to strut your high stockings, yes, and some of the most dazzling organizations of sound yet given forth from the human race.

Monday, May 10, 2010

franz schubert / quintet in c

for the past few months i've wanted to do nothing but listen to late-classical chamber works. i've fought this urge, since i fear of over doing it, but it is all too rewarding to immerse myself into this genre. and nothing, as of late, sates my ears quite like schubert's lone string quintet in c. even amidst its internal conflicts, these four movements (for two cellos, two violins, one viola) soothe my busy mind and slow down the inexplicable and rapid world around me. i believe the peculiar instrumentation has a bit to do with my reactions and attachment -- two cellos, as opposed to two violas, creates a robust lower register, generating a richer, fuller tonal language than i could find in quartets or traditional (ie mozart-esque) quintets. sometimes it is affecting enough to make me want to bathe naked in the sun whilst humming the first fact, i may just go do that now... (here)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beethoven - Symphony No. 9

I am not in love with Beethoven's ninth symphony. I find it very difficult to hold it all in my head at once and the last movement baffles me. The first three movements are of such scale and scope that Beethoven's decision to bring a choir into the finale is understandable - it adds weight and grandeur, helps to balance the piece. But once you've got that choir, it's hard to write a conventional rondo finale, so Beethoven repeats the solution of his third symphony and pens a loose set of variations. And of course this is Beethoven, so they are worked into a miniature four-movement symphony in their own right, with an expository allegro, a scherzo with jangling Janissary band, a slow movement, and a frantic finale. The ambition is great, but the strain seems to show, it can seem a little messy (the Grosse Fuge is messy, too, but there it's easier to accept the messiness as part of a deliberate scheme, especially when heard after the rest of the Op. 130 quartet; in the more formal shape of a symphony it looks odd). It's a popular piece, the fault is probably my own, but I end up experiencing it moment-by-moment, or at best movement-by-movement. Okay, this is how music goes, but it's nice to be able to stand back and see things in their entirety.

Perhaps all that just means that for me to like this symphony, it takes a special kind of performance. Here are two, each completely different in approach and effect. Furtwängler's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is searing. It doesn't help me to see the big picture, but I'm not bothered about that when I'm busy dodging the lumps of molten iron its hurling at me in every bar - when you're running away from a lion you don't stop to admire the beauty of the savannah. Commentators turn to elemental or geological terms to describe it: it is seismic, it has the force of a tidal wave, it is volcanic. It was recorded live in Berlin in 1942 - this is troubling even if you take a charitable view of Furtwängler's much-discussed involvement with the Nazi Party. Some try to argue that the performance is somehow inherently anti-Nazi; the piece is a cry for freedom and universal brotherhood, and the performance has such a desperate urgency that such a reading may not be as fanciful as it seems. Anyway, the music is great.

Klemperer's live 1957 performance is at the opposite end of most scales. If the critical cliché for Furtwängler's performance is "volcanic", then for this it is "granitic". Here we're in more peaceful times, the lava has cooled. It isn't so furiously exciting, but it will last. The danger that Furtwängler feels in every bar is not so present here, but there is that wider view, standing back and looking at the hills, the trees, the smoke.

So here is Furtwängler (in pretty rough sound) and here is Klemperer (in very good sound). Never mind the piece, I love the recordings.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

teodoro anzellotti | works by janacek, satie, scarlatti

with a bit more than a month since posting janacek's piano works behind us, and the dregs of late winter before us, this may be as opportune a moment as any to put forward the recordings of master accordionist teodoro anzellotti. for whereas rudolf firkusny's outings might sound better toward the end of august, when perhaps you've just put a few more overgrown paths behind you, anzellotti's sound perfectly grips the over-incubated madness for lost moments in the sun that those of us who live in places like... maine... live for... right about now. in his hands, the overgrown path suite loses some of its tragic edge, taking on a more optimistic tone in places (for instance, on "a blown away leaf", and most surprisingly, on "unutterable anguish"... on the spectrum of emotions, it seems the accordion bottoms out at 'glum'.) this is not to say, however, that these aren't stunning, poetic readings — for that they are. following these, anzellotti treats us to janacek's "three moravian dances" which sound completely at home on the instrument, showing off janacek's fluency with folk forms, and possibly inducing you to do a modest jig around your living room.

as for his work with satie's piano pieces, much the same can be said again. more though, this one can be praised for anzellotti's success in preserving and occasionally enriching the spirit of the works. yes, of course, when the notes come fast and loud, the sound can get a bit ruddy — such is the nature of the tool — but for the most part it stays lean, graceful. actually, on certain pieces, such as the "petite ouverture a danser", you have to wonder whether satie might've secretly had the accordion in mind when writing them. the gnossiennes aren't quite as penetrating as on their best piano performances, but as anzellotti handles each line with the requisite spine-chilling rubato, and as the space lost in his wide tones finds us in a more confined area with satie's music, the effect is nevertheless gripping.

lastly, my recent favorite of the batch, we have anzellotti plying his impressive chops against a selection of domenico scarlatti keyboard sonatas. these works surely never sounded so alive as in the hands of our hero of the day. he brands their austerity with humanity, melting their stone-faced rigidity with golden ebullience, and this joyfulness getting to frolic where it had been prohibited erstwhile is of a kind i find wildly seductive. the celebratory demeanor of these performances can't be an accident.

for the janacek, hear
for the satie, hear
for the scarlatti, hear

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

wolfgang amadeus mozart | piano concertos 20 & 27

when i wrote in an earlier post about how mozart's late symphonies highlighted aspects of the composer which might stand at odds with his myth (especially the rot proffered by the movie Amadeus), i mistakenly extrapolated that due to his alignment with various enlightenment era ideals, emotionality and sensuality would only ever be secondary characteristics of his music. you see, i had not heard these marvelous piano concertos, and it's the D minor concerto, no. 20, in particular that makes a very convincing argument for the abandonment of that conclusion. for it's with this work that mozart anticipated the struggles of his stylistic descendants to express their own messy humanity through their highly formalistic medium. in other words, mozart granted Doubt its viability in fancy people music. and it worked. the value of having to wait for the moment affirmation wasn't lost on audiences of the time. nor was it lost on beethoven, who would play the concerto years later and write his own cadenzas for it, and who would extend the emotional reach of sonata form piano music to the most intimate of concerns — for what is intimacy but the ultimate confrontation between doubt and affirmation? eh? something else entirely? and by the way, if i'm not mistaken, it's beethoven's cadenzas that perahia plays here. the B-flat major concerto which follows on this disc is not quite so radical, but still holds its ground against my earlier stab at supposing mozart's expressive agenda. and it's every bit as much a treat to hear murray perahia tickling the ivories here as on the D minor. his playing is as spotless as it is thoughtful as it is unaffected, and its integration with the english chamber orchestra is utterly seamless. the recording quality on these cbs recordings (which, if anyone's interested, can be purchased either in ultra-cheap single discs or in one big box set) adds a thin layer of gossamer to the performances, and it's actually pretty becoming of the mood of each concerto. so, great shit all around. hear.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

franz schubert | death and the maiden

schubert's 14th and (edit: not) final string quartet, written in 1824 and titled 'death and the maiden,' was, as you might expect, greatly influenced by the composer's deteriorating health, which finally struck franz down four years later. although this quartet never quite reaches the somber depth of shostakovich's 8th -- it seems as though friends often want to converse about the morbid aspects of life --, schubert achingly works through foreboding themes.

the allegro briskly battles between lush, happier motifs and a fortissimo pseudo-leitmotif, disjointly straddling life and death. for as long as possible the quartet fights off the inevitable until one final attack, followed by a sigh and a faded stumble into the next movement. the adante, for which the quartet is named, is a resigned affair, and even in its faster moments the strings are noticeably burdened. the brief scherzo offers reprise, a hopeful doubt, per chance? but this glimmer is swiftly quashed with the final movement. the presto is maddeningly irreverent, signaling not only schubert's embrace of his death but also some sort of rejuvenation.

this fourth movement may offer some insight into explaining the content of schubert's late works: in spite of disastrous health and constant critical rejection, franz was still able produce breathtakingly beautiful compositions; maybe acceptance of death somehow inspired both his genius and to be so daring?

the takács quartet expand on these themes perfectly, breathing emotion into this piece in all of the right ways. just as stilton mentioned below me, the takács too disorient one's sense of time, allowing the listener to engross him/herself in the feelings schubert sought to evoke. paired along here with the 14th is schubert's 13th -- a worthwhile listen, certainly; however, it seems a bit inappropriate to listen to it immediately after his 14th. i highly suggest separate sittings for each. hear