Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Why yes he does look
like Harry Potter!
The summer of 1998, which I spent up at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan was sort of my "Summer of Shostakovich." I still remember hearing this work for the first time. It was performed by the World Youth Symphony, a simply MASSIVE orchestra made up of the top students of the camp. I wasn't sure what to expect but I ended up spending most of the time on the edge of my seat (quite literally). I was nearly breathless by the time the work was done. It became an instant favourite.

The work is a program symphony (a multi-movement work that tells some sort of story) and is based on the 1905 Russian revolution. Some call this work "a film score without a film" and it certainly seems apt, especially as the composer did write several film scores. This is truly one of those works where you have to know the program in order to understand what is going on.

Movement I (The Palace Square) depicts the the Palace Square before the a group of striking workers and their family descended on it. That day (January 22, 1905), groups of workers gathered around the city. Holding religious icons and singing hymns and patriotic songs, they marched to the square to present a petition to the Tsar (complaining about the government's increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways). Palace guards were told to only allow them so far. The movement is quiet and yet ominous all at the same time. It sets your hair on edge.

Movement II (The 9th of January) depicts the events of Bloody Sunday, directly following on the heels of the events in the first movement. (The 9th, btw is in the old style calendar, what we could now call the 22nd). Once the workers reached the Palace Square, the guards fired warning shots into the air and when that didn't deter them, they shot into the unarmed, peaceful crowd. Official records say that 96 were dead and 333 injured though unofficial anti-government reports put the number much higher than that. More moderate estimates put the number at around 1000 wounded or dead, including some who were trampled in the panic after the shooting began. I like this description from Wikipedia: This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a steep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass. Another full orchestra buildup launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into an intense section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the panic and the troops' advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.

Movement III (Eternal Memory) is a lament on the violence.

Movement IV (Tocsin) is a march which reaches a violent climax before returning to the material from the opening of the symphony. At the end, the the tocsin (warning bell) rings out a harsh G minor chord while the orchestra attempts to counteract with G major. It ends with just the note G. Neither party wins. Ultimately this is meant to foreshadow the 1917 Revolution.

You can listen to the entire work here if you're up for a full length hour long symphony.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Piccolo Concerto by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961)

One day back in 1998 I was heading home for Thanksgiving with my best friend Jason. We were nearing the service plaza on the Thruway that I always get off at (Angola...it's fun! you get to walk on a pedestrian bridge over the road and it's fun to feel the bridge move a bit when the tractor trailers go under it!). We turned on one of the Classical music stations and there was this absolutely amazing piece playing. We were both so totally enthralled that we drove right past the service plaza entrance and then had to turn around (I was NOT missing Angola...it was tradition darnitall!). Luckily for us, the rest of our driving around kept us in the basic vicinity so we didn't lose the station and we were able to get to the end of the piece and find out what this glorious piece of music was.

As it turned out, it was the Piccolo Concerto by Lowell Liebermann. The work, which was commissioned by the National Flute Association, was written in 1996 and first performed by Jan Gippo. The first recording of the work was put out by James Galway (the recording we heard on the radio that day) in 1998. It is GLORIOUS. The opening of it is simply amazing and beautiful. Seriously. I know a lot of people want to avoid all modern music but don't avoid listening to this work. The first movement alone is worth listening to.

One reviewer said of it "This delightful work was full of eerie beauty and rollicking good humor." I think that sums it up entirely too well.

You can listen to James Galway perform the work on youtube.

I. Andante comodo (Seriously...if you listen to ANYTHING here listen to this movement)
II. Adagio: Part 1 | Part 2 (I could only find this divided into two parts -- a holdover from when youtube limited the amount of time on videos much more than they do now!)
III. Presto

Now this last movement is a lot of fun. See if you can recognize a couple quotations from very famous works that he used in the middle of it. If you're really into Classical music you may even sense one of them coming up long before he comes to it. It makes me laugh every time!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clarinet Concerto in A by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart. We all know Mozart right? Boy genius who was writing compositions practically from birth, those works coming fully formed out of his head and onto the paper. Perpetual child in a man's body. Other composers were so jealous that they attempted to murder him. Father was somewhat abusive and pushed his child too far and never gave him a proper education. We all know the "facts" right? Except...I don't think most of us actually do. Most things we "know" about Mozart are likely untrue or at the very least twisted so that they almost don't resemble the truth.

A few common myths:

1. Mozart dyed of poisoning. Alternately, Mozart died from an excess of alcohol and overwork. Reality? Mozart likely died because he had rheumatic fever and the common procedure during his time was to use leaches to let out blood. This further weakened him and he ultimately died. Recent research has also suggested strep throat in the place of rheumatic fever. The reality is really so much more mundane isn't it?

2. Mozart was buried in an unmarked pauper's (or mass) grave. Reality? Well, it's somewhat true. The falsity in this one comes about because people attribute this to Mozart's having been incredibly poor. But this was common practice during the time. Emperor Joseph II had abolished all the pomp and circumstance of funerals.

3. Mozart didn't work at composing and he everything he wrote down was perfect the first time. Reality? Mozart tended to sketch out his ideas and then compose the entire piece. He DID have much of it up in his head, but he liked to sketch it out so he wouldn't forget those ideas and then could go back and fill it all in. There are very few Mozart sketches left; his wife destroyed many of them. This idea of Mozart as writing with 100% inspiration and never having to work his way through a piece came about in the 19th century with a fake letter someone created to back up his story about Mozart.

Mozart WAS eccentric (aren't all the greats after all?) and may have suffered from some sort of bipolar disorder (when he was "up" he was jumping over billiard tables, meowing at the cat, and doing other crazy things; when he was down he was writing some of his most heart-wrenching music). He did have a rather disgusting sense of humor and many of his letters are littered with scatological humor. And seriously...on the latter? Here's an awesome verse from one of his letters to a cousin (the original German even rhymed):

Well, I wish you good night
But first shit into your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth your arse you'll shove.

Did you know that about Mozart?

Anyway, I don't think most of us really know Mozart. He's a fascinating figure, not just for his life and work, but for the myths and legends that have grown up around him.

One of his most famous and most-loved works is his Clarinet Concerto. Now here's the truly interesting thing about this work. Not many of us have ever heard the work as it was originally written. Evidence showed that it was first conceived of as a work for the Basset Horn in G, a lower member of the clarinet family that is no longer in use, but that Anton Stadler (the person the Concerto was written for) was known to be a virtuoso on. However, the final published version was written up in A. With a twist (you knew it couldn't be that easy right?). Some of the clarinet's line goes down to low C, when the Clarinet only goes down to E. So what on earth...? Well, it's likely the piece was written for the Basset Clarinet, an instrument that looks remarkably similar to the A Clarinet but has the capability to go down to the low C. It's long. REALLY long. I couldn't find a picture of it standing next to a regular A clarinet, but here's a photo of Kenneth Grant (of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra) holding one. Just look at the bottom of that instrument!

I remember when I was in high school wanting to play this work and looking at it, thinking "Wow that's easy." My instructor refused to let me touch it. Technically it is not the most demanding work (though it becomes more so when played on the original larger instrument!) but getting the right emotional subtlety takes much more maturity than I had when I was a teenager. It took me many years to realize that.

Here is Martin Fröst performing part of the first movement on the Basset Clarinet.

You can listen to the work here (this recording also features the Basset Clarinet, but is audio only):

I. Allegro (Please note that this particular recording drops out the opening section which features just the orchestra.)
II. Adagio
III. Rondo

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F Minor by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

In 1890, the great Johannes Brahms resolved to give up composing. I'm not quite certain why though I suspect it was related to his more conservative musical style and the way music was changing around him.

Luckily for us clarinetists, Brahms happened to hear Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra. Upon hearing his sound quality and his musicianship, Brahms was moved to take pen to paper yet again and ultimately wrote four works for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and two fantastic Clarinet Sonatas (which Brahms himself eventually rewrote for the viola).

Not only did we clarinetists end up with two great Sonatas by Brahms, but this opened the door for other composers to write Sonatas for the instrument and so we ended up with many great works.

The work was written in 1894 (as was the other Sonata). It is a four-movement work following the usual pattern one would see in String Quartets or Symphonies (fast first movement, slow and lyrical second movement, a dance-like third movement in 3, and a fast-paced final movement). Unlike the usual works written for clarinet at this time, the piano here is a true equal to the clarinet. In most works written around Brahms's time the clarinet was the lead and the piano fell into an accompanimental role. From talking to accompanists back when I was in college (and played this work), this was one of the most difficult piano "accompaniments." Brahms definitely didn't skimp on the piano part. And all of his triplets against duplets make the work difficult (but fun!) to put together.

I tried to find a recording on youtube that I really really liked, but struggled. So here's the best of the lot. I'm not a huge fan of the clarinetist's tone. It seems a little too bright and strident to me. I am, naturally, very very picky about which clarinetists I enjoy listening to! This recording is done by Johathan Cohler, clarinet and Judith Gordon, piano.

I. Allegro appassionato
II. Andante un poco Adagio
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Vivace

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

If you ever thought string quartets were boring, hold on to your hats! Franz Schubert, who is most known for the 600+ songs (including Der Leiermann) he wrote in his life, also wrote many fantastic string quartets. My favourite of them all is the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet written in 1824. This work showcases all of the power and beauty and intimacy of this genre.

This Quartet takes its name from a song that Schubert wrote in 1817. It was a setting of a poem by Matthias Claudius. The translation of the text of the poem is as follows:

The Maiden:
Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!

Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I'm a friend, hath ne'er distress'd thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!"

While the 2nd movement of this work uses the melody from Schubert's song, the entire "death and the maiden" struggle permeates the entire work. Walter Willson Cobbett (author of the 1929 Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music) said of it "The struggle with Death is the subject of the first movement, and the andante accordingly dwells on Death's words. The finale is most definitely in the character of a dance of death; ghastly visions whirl past in the inexorable uniform rhythm of the tarantella." (The Tarantella is the traditional dance to ward off madness and death.)

Others have seen the quartet as a musical expression of Judaeo-Christian religious myths with each movement being about a different episode in the mythic process of death and resurrection.

Fascinating stuff, right?

Well, without further ado, I bring you the quartet! Performed here by the Alban Berg Quartet.

I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo Allegro molto
IV. Presto

If you'd like to hear the original Death and the Maiden song written by Schubert, you can find it here. The accompanist here, by the way, is the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, an amazing singer who has recorded many of Schubert's songs. He just recently passed away, making the world a much sadder place.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Concerto in C for Piccolo (Flautino), RV443 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

I think I first came across this piece on an album that was some sort of compilation of relaxing Baroque era music. I know it was on cassette tape and I also know it was something I found at a garage sale back when I was in high school! So my love for this piece (or at least for the second movement of this piece) dates back pretty far (I won't say how far though!).

The work was originally not written for piccolo, obviously. Instead it was written for a Sopranino recorder, which is one of the highest-pitched recorders (only the Garklein, a tiny recorder pitched in C was higher than the F-pitched Sopranino). Today it's most often played on the piccolo, though there are some great recordings around that feature the Sopranino Recorder.

Vivaldi, the composer of this work, lived and worked for most of his life at an orphanage in Venice. He was actually trained to be a priest (thus earning him his nickname Il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest, due to his hair), but because of his precarious health (he suffered from asthma his entire life) he withdrew from active duty shortly after being ordained. He was hired to be the master of violin for the Devout Hospital of Mercy (and eventually became its music master), which took in oprhans, abandoned girls, and illegitimate offspring of the nobility (on the down low of course!). He worked there on and off for the next 30 years. Most of his works were written for the girls of this orphanage, often with Vivaldi himself playing the complicated violin solos.

Unfortunately for Vivaldi, while his works were immensely popular during his lifetime, after he died the works died out with him. Even Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's music didn't really get people interested in Vivaldi's music. It wasn't until the 20th century that the true revival of his music began, with many unpublished and forgotten works resurfacing. Works by Vivaldi have been uncovered as late as 2006.

You can see Lenka Smolcakova performing the work here on Sopranino Record.

Mvt. I
Mvt. II

And here's the last movement, since they have no recording of Ms. Smolcakova performing it. This one is performed with a modern orchestra and a piccolo. You should be able to hear the difference between the instruments. I much prefer the Sopranino Recorder!

Mvt. III