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

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Schubert - Piano Sonatas D. 894, 575, 840

Schubert's late works can seem to challenge normal ideas of how music exists within time. They do it both on the small scale (the endless chords that open the string quintet, the long notes and silences at the start of the G major quartet) and on the large (the ninth symphony goes on forever, the second half of the Trout quintet's last movement is a literal repetition of the first, only in a different key: "What, again?!").

The first movement of the piano sonata D. 894 is similar, especially when Sviatoslav Richter plays it. It is marked "molto moderato", which leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and Richter uses it all (for an idea of just how unusual his reading is,
compare it to Wilhelm Kempff's recording). At this speed, the rapid figure introduced early on doesn't disturb anyone's peace, yet the whole is far from stuck on one level: in fact, the changes of dynamic and tonal area sthat Schubert throws at us seem all the more sudden for arriving more slowly. The problem of over-repetition is dodged by slowing things to a pace where you think on the level of the note, not the phrase; phrases can't be repeated if they do not exist to begin with. And though the music is rhythmically regular, the idea of a
beat is destroyed; there is just one note following another at a pace without reference to anything but itself. Schubert emerges, in fact, as an unlikely ancestor to Morton Feldman - better-dressed, with cleaner fingernails, fancier, but just as ready to surprise you with a sudden shout, and just as unconcerned by the passage of time.

The other movements are, I suppose, not so shocking, but great in their way, and then it's onto the sonatas D. 575 and D. 840. The final two movements of the latter are incomplete. Most pianists ignore them, a few use a completed edition. Richter, though, goes his own way, which is in a sense is also Schubert's: he plays what the composer wrote, and when the notes suddenly stop, he does too. So the tonally uncertain minuet ends uncertainly, and the rondo spins off into nothingness. The normal course of time is again challenged - by erecting a wall in its path.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

antonin dvorak | symphonies nos. 8 & 9

so speaks our friend in fanciness, docperkins:

Find hereby majestic renditions, in line with the grandiloquence of two representative pieces of the romantic repertoire. Grandiloquent implying positive and negative features that grandiloquence impinges upon art-forms, to which music is no exception. The orchestra is superb and Kubelik up to the crew skills. Along the same fruition highway (or you dared to imagine Dvorak would drop the highway concept on behalf of a ‘hand-made lane’?), our attention to conceptual detail is kindly invited out, on behalf of the quick-relief enjoyment provided by aptly crafted panache. The latter pays a heavy ransom to simplicity, but the latter is most of the times concealed, and when it turns up is always wearing a tux. (Nothing against musical simplicity and quick-relief trends in themselves, by the way.)

Antonín Dvorák, who went to USA in 1892 to teach at the National Conservatory, became a huge fan of so-called African-American spirituals, and nurtured the strongly appealing -- and impossible not to sympathise with -- agenda of sonic miscegenation. Professor Dvorak firmly believed that American music would only acquire a physiognomy of its own, and due relevance, if and when succeeded to methodically (as opposed to spontaneously, which is something to cheer for, given that ‘spontaneity’ in classical music leads to kitsch of the uninteresting type) infuse African-American material into European musical epistemes. Besides of the fact that at the end of the day the opposite occurred, as African-American composers assimilated European epistemes into blues and jazz, Professor Dvorák lack in form what he exceeded in potentially creative ideological content.

Furthermore, his “From The New World” largely shows that the non-western segments Dvorák, with utmost good intentions, correct intuition, and unintended patronising attitude, managed to insert into the symphony did not become organically articulated as components of the piece. At the most they were aural quotations, maybe ornaments transvestited of cultural sonic signposts. In this sense, one could excise these quotations and ornaments while the symphony would still exist and be on its feet after a couple of minor, minute cosmetic surgeries. This would never be conceivable in pieces where the real melting down of Western and non-Western sonic epistemes occur at the very structural level as an issue of form, and to unbelievable effect, as displayed in some of the works by, e.g., Feldman, Scelsi, Xenakis and Bartók.

Meanwhile, it appears that Dvorák’s Ninth, “From The New World”, will continue competing with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” as most played ‘classical tune’ (whatever this means) in supermarkets, department stores, waiting rooms, and also in my study, where this fantastic floppish cultural agenda turned into ‘fancy music’ amuses me and makes me wonder how nice it would be if all failed pompous modern cultural projects were all destined to become unmissable, classy blockbusters. hear