Friday, February 19, 2010

leos janacek | piano works

right up through the concertino for piano and small orchestra, this collection asserts the greener side of janacek's work — the folk influences present though rather muted within the romantic conceptions of elegiac tunefulness. much of the "on an overgrown path" suite, with its gorgeously uncertain melodies that ache to find graceful cadence through all manner of unpredictably shifting rhythms, feels like it could sound at home on a rinky dink music box. something you might pick up in a musty roadside antique store out of curiosity, only to have to put it back down out of your own sense of impudence at disturbing such long lost sorrows. the delicacy of the harmonies makes constant the illusion that the forms are on the verge of disintegration; that the same unhurried hand that formed the lines may lose its muse in the fog of forgetfulness at any moment. but rather than just letting those lines drift further and further away from their source, janacek forces the pianist to take them through awful lunges at it; lunges that never actually bring them any closer to that which they seek. written in the wake of his daughter's death, this may be an entirely apt musical allegory for the composer's grieving process. the other excellent solo piano pieces contained on this double disc seem to follow a similar emotional/dynamic course.

then, once we reach the concertino, the pastoral becomes less a stage for the interpersonal and more of an alien spaciousness for the single mind to wander unsearchingly. in the piu mosso second movement, there are small delights to be found here and there, but they seem to emanate from the feeling of indifference to one's disorientation established in the first movement. the third movement—which begins with panicky puffs of brass and an agitated dance-like melody on the piano, shortly resolves into a delirious serenity expressed through sparkling piano and strings and circular melodies from the clarinet, and then starts to slide back toward the initial state of alarm—may suggest the experience one often has when out in the wilderness: first tremulousness, then elation, then the apprehension that one cannot exist exclusively in either one for very long before reality sets in. fittingly, the fourth movement combines all these various states into an unstable mass of conflicting impulses. i'm ever grateful for janacek's grasp of modernity, the progressiveness of his geometry never forsaking the humane.

last on the menu, the oddity that is janacek's cappricio. to solve the problem of writing for a one-/left-handed pianist, the composer arranged that player's part against a small brass ensemble + a flute. the resulting four movements are fascinating at every turn, although they don't seem very substantial taken as wholes. nonetheless, at the end of this almost two hour set, the cappricio somehow seems like a long-awaited exhalation and a return to the comforting terrain of emotional (but never psychological) equanimity. hear.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

richard strauss | don quixote; horn concerto no. 2

composed in 1942, strauss' second horn concerto is the most "modern" composition to inhabit this blog, but it sure doesn't sound it! sure, strauss has always been firmly rooted in the post-wagnerian romantic tradition, never quite letting the dissonances of a piece, like say salome, take him too far afield. so then why is the date of note? well, the obvious: tonality was supposedly dead in eastern europe for almost twenty years, with the serial arms race underway. but even so, the concerto doesn't reek of neoclassicalism (is it because strauss never had an episteme to hark back to?). the (real) obvious, vis-a-vis the date: strauss was smack dab in the middle of total war, having recently disassociated himself from the nazi party; possibly in fear of antisemitic attacks on friends and family. truly a terrifying time for any human, but maybe, relative to the representative 1942 gentile eastern european, richard was in a heightened state of fear. that's the peculiar thing about this horn concerto: it is regal (mein...k├Ânig?) and stately, but not a (superficial) expression of a man surrounded by death. so then is it an act of dissidence? not quite, i claim. strauss did produce the pacifist opus friedenstag during this period; and moreover, if this piece were, is he pining for order? -- i presume not. hence i -- who knows about strauss? -- view this composition as a flight to serenity amidst chaos; a fancy night at the orchestra, all the while ignoring the corpses littering the streets. and ohhhh, the french horn.

right, don quixote. well, i won't say much except "how about those soloists (fournier on cello, cappone on viola)?" that, and, its pairing with the horn concerto is interesting (beyond the virtuoso emphasis) and highly affecting.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

alban berg | wozzeck

i've been fascinated by alban berg for the past month, both his music and what i have read about his personality. the latter: his crippling empathy and fragile relationship with success and his mentor. frighteningly, i see part of myself in his faults. moreover, and somewhat bleeding into the former, his tenuous relationship with romanticism and l'avant: clinging onto those with which you hold dear but contradictorily flinging oneself into the unknown. that is, the intertwining of mahler with newfangled atonality. everything about him seems so confused, so unsure of himself, even after achieving near universal praise. berg is both the social elite and the man with whom i can relate. i want his genius, his ability to make the academic and the immediate one, but share his doubts and self-imposed mental hurdles. he is the fancy man i could see myself being in my wildest of dreams. nothing is better at summing up his talent and twisted mind than wozzeck, nor was anything fancier in the 1920's than this opera. be sure to keep your pinkies out whilst reading either the libretto or a synopsis; the social context of berg's masterpiece cannot be overstated. much of these three acts are ugly permutations of operatic past and distorted, discarded tonality; nothing to me better depicts between-war fanciness. entendre.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

johann sebastian bach | cello suites

performers of bach's cello suites have found interpretive possibilities in them so widely differing from each other that to discuss them together may chance upon the arbitrary. keeping this in mind, i'll introduce these three vitally unique readings, and try to keep contact between them at the bare minimum necessary for me to keep this shit together. so, on one end of a spectrum, i would place pierre fournier, his solemnly slow tempi, and those phrasings of his that so thoroughly excise all the "danciness" from the works without mutating them into shapeless messes. some would say this renders his interpretation invalid, that it's that very danciness that constitutes the soul of the works; others, such as myself, would say "wow, who knew they didn't need to be so dancy? this is great!!". and really, fournier's rendering, if somewhat irrelevant to the original cultural derivations of the forms, surely can't be accused of irreverence; no other performance that i've heard shows a greater affinity for the tragic undercurrent of this music. okay, then somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum goes rostropovich: his even-paced, timbrally balanced, and wholly perspicacious performances—seemingly given to no stylistic excess (for in such an intimate account, there is nothing to embellish); these are many folks' first and still-favorite recordings of the cello suites and it's not without good reason! these have 'definitive' written all over them. finally, on the other end of this spectrum, my favorite (i almost wrote "my boyfriend" without thinking...), heinrich schiff, whose paradox here is this: he plays the suites really fast, yes, but rather than making them feel condensed or claustrophobic, they feel as spiritually light and open as anything that survives by the light of the sun. and it's not all levity either—schiff's sarabandes are deeply searching and he's certainly not afraid to lean into a chunky double-stop (i.e. "get his hands dirty") here and there. the emi recordings of schiff are also noteworthy for the truly lifelike character they preserve in the cello: the degree of detail is such that one may feel induced to fixate impossibly on every last pore in each sound issued from the great instrument. anyway, i don't think you can go wrong grabbing any one of these double discs, and you most assuredly can't go wrong grabbing all three : ) for fournier, hear. for rostropovich, hear. for schiff, hear.