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


Monday, 23 March 2020

Review: Saint-Saëns, Organ Symphony

Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Conductor, Mariss Jansons, organist, Iveta Apkalna
BR Klassik. This CD also includes the Poulenc Organ Concerto in G Minor, "a homage to Paris in sound".

French composer of the romantic period, Saint-Saëns was famed as the organist of the Eglise de la Madeleine in Paris and particularly renowned for his skill in improvisation. This enabled him to draw on and incorporate the most diverse influences. At the outset of the 'Organ Symphony' and at its conclusion the traditional organ sound with its rich chord production are to the fore and in the slow movement it can be heard clearly creating a smooth uninterrupted flow of sonority.  But between these musical events, the organ plays its part not as a concertante instrument but as an orchestral addition providing integrated, subtle colourings with Saint-Saens wonderful orchestration.

It is the first and second movements, Adagio/Allegro Moderato then Poco Adagio which draw in the listener, captivates, mesmerises and then plays with them. The final movements break the spell and excite with tempo and dynamic changes, leading to the organ's final huge sonorous conclusion - just to let you know it was there all the time.

Saint-Saëns is so much more than Danse Macabre and Carnival of the Animals, providing us with symphonies, operatic work and concertos for cello, violin and piano - more than 300 works in all. Within this spectrum, there are comparatively few works for organ, which can perhaps be explained by his focus on live extemporisation.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Reviews: Glass, Mahler and Donizetti

As a violinist I was irresistibly drawn to the first choice for this month's reviews - Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2, 'American Four Seasons' (Piotr Plawner, Violin, Berner Kammerorchester, c. Philippe Bach, Naxos American Classics).

I'm sure that Glass is long past the label of minimalist, but he might forgive me if I use the term here, as the style of simple arpeggio figures and insistent repetition has much in common with the Baroque, where rhythm and pattern are significant features. Vivaldi's famous 'Seasons' piece is clearly visible in Glass's compositional mirror, as was his intention. The remaining significant similarity between the two works is the contrast between the expression of power and then lyricism which both concertos capture magnificently. The movements are not labelled with their appropriate season and although others will try to guess which movement is which, I was relieved to escape from that distraction. The concerto was premiered in Toronto in 2009.

My second choice is a familiar symphonic favourite, Mahler's No. 4 (Minnesota Orchestra, c. Osmo Vanska, soloist, soprano, Carolyn Sampson, BIS).

A heavenly delight! If you haven't indulged in this symphony before it is perhaps one of the most soothing, even healing, symphonic experiences that you are likely to encounter. There may well be bubbling musical tensions abounding throughout but don't expect anything but the occasional ff or explosive crescendo. Instead, bathe in an hour's worth of inventive orchestration as the musical narrative unfolds. Having experienced Mahler from the first violin desk, I can tell you how prescriptive the score is, how there is something new every few bars, seemlessly woven into a symphonic whole. When I first heard this symphony, it was somehow spoilt for me by the soprano entry in the final fourth movement, proclaiming a child's vision of heaven, but now the song is an additional high which sums up the whole work. The symphony was composed in 1901.

The third and final choice this month are three string quartets by Donizetti (Nos 4-6, Pleyel Quartet, Koln, CPO)

It was with a little trepidation that I listened to these quartets having been quite disappointed by other such chamber offerings from the Italian bel canto style opera composers of the early 19th century. These quartets were fortunately a delight! The style is, naturally, strictly classical as created by Haydn, the acknowledged master of the genre, so you will know what to expect if you are a fan. However, what I heard in addition was operatic atmosphere in this music, particularly in the slow movements. They evoke the stage - nothing visual, you understand, but a visceral theatrical feeling at the heart of the music.