Thursday, 27 August 2020

Review: A Very Nice Composer

It's a delight to discover a 'new' composer, the irony being that this composer's lack of fame was directly attributed to his lack of 'newness': Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, born in Altona, Hamburg, then under Danish rule).

Carl Reinecke Symphonies 1 & 3; Plus, music from the opera, 'King Manfred'. Munchner R├╝ndfunkorchester, c., Henry Raudales. CPO

A man who avoided anything brash, outspoken, outlandish, he was cast in the mold of an upholder of the classical tradition. For a considerable part of his prodigious career, this went well, but by the end - as iconoclasts Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler took to the stage - this did not continue, his music then cast as academic and stuck in the classical groove.

Reinecke's orchestral music is superbly crafted with no consequent lack of passion, grace, force and expression. If you enjoy a great symphony, try the two found on this CD. Always feeling in the shadow of other musical greats and geniuses, Reinecke humbly dedicated himself to the service of music, as conductor, director, composer and author, the pinnacle of his career taking place in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus and Conservatory, where as a shy Danish boy he sought out the musical director, Felix Mendelssohn. Reinecke eventually became head of the finest orchestra of his day at the Gewandhaus.

 For some reason he offended Johannes Brahms who wrote of his third symphony, "Everything is so coarse and ill-bred!" Clear nonsense and damaging. To make way for the new, Reinecke was sidelined, but his considerable repertoire is waiting to be fully rediscovered and appreciated as, to quote another reviewer, "His works are distinguished by nobility and form, melodic euphony and ingenious artistic construction."

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

From Monteverdi to Modernism

My usual attraction is to go for contrast, which is, incidentally, a basic requirement of musical expression, soft to loud, slow to quick, low to high, etc. Here are two recent recordings that exemplify contrast.

Christopher Rouse, Symphony 5, Supplica & Concerto for Orchestra. Nashville Symphony, c. Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos American Classics

American contemporary music is neither inhibited nor inaccessible. Rouse (1949 - 2019, my exact contemporary) and one time student of the fabulous George Crumb is where symphonic music's mantle rests today - his music a constant stream of contrasts, most notably from loud and frenetic, to quiet serenity, the transformation from one to the other often stark. Always present is the sense of being carried along, as by an automotive, the journey ever continuous. There is a highly attractive balance in his music between uncomfortable discord and soothing harmony and this is probably what made Rouse one of the most performed living composers during his lifetime. That's the symphony in a nutshell; the piece Supplica belongs to Rouse's serene world, while the Concerto for Orchestra is a tour de force for each orchestra section, each of which takes the role of 'soloist'. The USA is not a well nation today on many levels, but its music suggests an underlying strata of promise for the future.

Monteverdi, Complete Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, c. Marco Longhini. Naxos. 15 discs; 15 'books'

Here is a veritable feast of madrigal music, secular song, whose expression reached its peak with the works of Monteverdi (1567-1643). His First Book of Madrigals for Five Voices was published in Venice in 1587 at the age of nineteen. These 'youthful compositions' formed the seed for later works that would change the art of composition for ever. The madrigal, here in Monteverdi charged with high-voltage sexual desire, delight and pain, was a quest to transform poetry into music. It became the highest form of refinement and cultural expression patronised by the courts and their followers:

This hand set the snare, this
loveliest of hands laid it midst flowers and grass,
and this hand took my heart and placed it
with such haste amid a thousand burning flames.
that I hold it captive here,
vengeance, Love, vengeance.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Thoughts and Reviews of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

Sergei Prokofiev, Suites from the Gambler & The Tale of the Stone Flower. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, c. Dima Slobodeniouk. BIS

Symphonies 3 & 6. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, c. Pietari Inkinen. SWR Music

Imagine that, as a composer, your next composition could be judged by the authorities as inappropriate for the public and that the result of this would be your removal, imprisonment or even execution. 'The Terror' was the name for these circumstances under the Soviet dictator, Stalin.

Then, the two composers at the pinnacle of Soviet era music were Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. Prokofiev was the more cosmopolitan and of the two and spent enough time in exile, in Paris and New York, to imbibe the atmosphere and compositional styles of the first half of the twentieth century. Later, Prokofiev was to return to Russia at which point his passport was never returned to him.

He was the great painter of portraits, musically and psychologically speaking, those of the portraits he 'painted' being right in your face. Don't expect soothing music when coming to Prokofiev for the first time, but do expect brilliant percussion, brass and rhythmic thrills. Then, out of the orchestral mayhem will emerge Prokofiev's lyrical beauty, the ballet Tale of the Stone Flower giving full vent to this side of his character.

In 1915, before The Terror was an issue for Russians, Prokofiev composed The Gambler, an opera based on the characters of Dostoevsky's novel of the same name. This suite of music from the opera is four portraits of its characters, the composer's expression unfettered. By the time we arrive at his sixth symphony after the conclusion of World War II, his character, personality and body had been worn down by age and the constant threat of humiliation and removal if he, like others, did not tow the party dictation. Music should be accessible for the masses and should not involve the modernist tendancy towards dissonance, described as 'formalistic'. When the sixth was premiered, all seemed to be fine. A few weeks later, in January 1948, Prokofiev, along with others, including Shostakovitch, were humiliated and denounced for formalistic tendencies and performances of this great symphony were silenced.

Listen to it - any uncomfortable dissonance is hard to find. Key centres that are hard to pin down, yes, but dissonance? Right at the end, a most spectacularly defiant dissonant chord resolves, dissolves, into the final chord - a bright, optimistic D major.

Stalin's and Prokofiev's funerals were on the same day, 9th March, 1953. Prokofiev's coffin was carried through Moscow's streets, its barers struggling against the tide of people moving in the opposite direction towards the funeral of his aweful nemesis.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, All-Night Vigil; Sacred Choral Works. Latvian Radio Choir, c. Sigvards Klava

And now, music to soothe a troubled mind, The All-Night Vigil was described by Tchaikovsky as 'An essay in harmonisation of liturgical chants'. That sounds academic; the result is not. A significant clue to give insight into what lies behind this spiritual music is in the composer's attitude to religion. He loved to be in a church, loved the poetic forms of expression that religion spawned, but had no sympathy for its dogma. He wrote to a friend, 'I, like you, have come to believe that if there is a future life, it is only in the sense that matter is preserved, and that in a pantheistic view of the eternity of nature I am merely one microscopic phenomenon.'

The music is harmonically satisfying and follows the various styles of practice in the Russian Orthodox Church which the composer studied carefully, adding, subtly, harmonic movement of his own.

In the above mentioned correspondence, Tchaikovsky speaks of standing in the shadows of some ancient little church filled with the smoke of incense, meditating deep into himself and searching for the answers to eternal questions, then awoken from thoughfulness when the choir sings, "Since my youth many passions have made war against me."

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Reviews: Octets from Mendelssohn, Enescu and Berio; Bruckner, Romantic Symphony

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-47), Octet in E flat major, Op.20

George Enescu (1881-1955), Octet for Strings in C major, Op.7

Gringolts Quartet and Meta4.  BIS

It's always a joy to hear this Mendelssohn signature piece, the one that claimed him a place amongst the great composers of all time and which embedded his ability to create elfin music. It is the third movement where this trademark appears, inspired by Goethe's Faust, about Walpurgis Night, 'Trailing cloud, and misted trees... Breeze in leaves, and wind in reeds.' No philosophical depth here though, just the transportation to an aetherial world of spirits. When he started to write the octet, Mendelssohn was sixteen. It is not possible to find a work of such maturity amongst other composers of similar age, including Mozart, to whom the octet's final movement refers in its fugal style, surely inspired by the final movement of Mozart's 'Jupiter' symphony. With this octet, Mendelssohn leaves behind the classical world and enters that of the Romantic.

Contrasted is the Enescu octet, which, as Mendelssohn journied from classical to romantic, Enescu moves through the portal from romanticism to modernism. A first premier of his octet was attempted in 1900 but abandoned after five rehearsals, when described by the conductor's son as 'horribly beautiful'. To modern ears, the adjective can be dropped, unless it is to be used to emphasise the inhuman depth of its beauty. Nine years later, the piece was performed in public. Supposedly written to encompass sonata form, each of the four movements makes this happen - the first movement is first subject, the last is recapitulation. Clearly the two young quartets who combine have a sympathy for the angular nature of the Enescu octet.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003), Cries of London for eight voices

Norwegian Soloists Choir.  BIS

Continuing the octet theme, this CD moves us now closer to our own times (composed, 1974-76). The Italian-born Berio was working in the period of experiment during which he was a pioneer in the making of electronic music. Many experiments in music from this period failed; be not concerned, this octet was a great success.

Written originally for the King's Singers, Cries of London references madrigals and part-songs often featured by the 'King's' and their cabaret performances. The vocal textures lie well on the ear and I even smiled at the repetitive use of the cry for "money, money, money", overlapping and urgent. If you would like a piece from this musical period to get to grips with, here is your opportunity: these are the cries of London Town, cry of cries, come money to me. Perhaps thereafter you may be tempted by the other piece on this CD, 'Coro for voices and instruments'. You won't be disappointed.

Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, 'The Romantic'
WAB, 104.

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks., conductor, Mariss Jansons.  BR Klassik

Finally, this month, listen to this recording of the huge Bruckner symphony, 'The Romantic', all 72 minutes of it. No-one in the history of western music has managed to sustain such expression, orchestration genius and inventiveness without inviting flagging focus. This is what classical music is all about. 'The Romantic' was the piece of Bruckner's breakthrough, premiered on February 20th, 1881, after his symphonic works to that date had largely been rejected.

"Music opens to man an unknown realm, a world that has nothing in common with the outer sensual one that surrounds him", E.T.A. Hoffman