The weekend’s listening. The usual long spiel!
Starting off with contrasting two symphonies where timpani are prominently used, one from the Classical Era and one from Modern times.
Haydn Symphony #103, “Drum-roll”
- Dresden PO under Gunther Herbig (Berlin Classics)
Continuing to explore Haydn’s twelve London symphonies, this weekend I took in No. 103. Given its title, unsurprisingly it starts with a drum-roll, which is followed by a very dark and ominous introduction with the bassoons, cellos and basses playing this dirge like melody. It has more than a faint suggestion of choral music and maybe the dies irae plainchant. But the dark mood quickly dissipates, followed by the body of this first movement which is full of dramatic contrasts, lively counterpoint and a kind of comedic wit so typical of Haydn. However what is not typical is what he does at the end of the movement – he returns to the opening adagio introduction, to the drum-roll and dirge-like idea.
This kind of totally unorthodox treatment of sonata form structure was not to be commonly used until Beethoven, and as we shall see with Nielsen in the early 20th century. However before the movement is out, Haydn rounds if off with references to the two main lively subjects of the movement.
Well, that’s only the first movement, what of the rest? Well it’s a wonderful symphony as a whole. The andante has a lovely violin solo in the middle of it, the minuet is spiced up with these odd and jerking Hungarian-type rhythms, and the finale has this rush of energy and rhythmic propulsion that I’d describe as exhilarating and breathtaking. For some reason Handel comes to mind when I listen to this finale, probably in terms of Haydn’s use of the trumpets and the quite vigorous counterpoint.
Nielsen Symphony #4, “The Inextinguishable”
- Los Angeles PO under Zubin Mehta (Eloquence)
Composed in the early 20th century, Carl Nielsen’s Symphony #4 in the words of the composer relates to the idea that “music, like life, is inextinguishable.” As in Haydn’s Drum-roll symphony composed over 100 years before, timpani play a pivotal role in the work.
The first movement teems with life and bristles with energy, while the second movement comes across as quite pastoral with some lovely writing for the woodwinds. The third movement has a sense of tragedy and for me is the emotional core of the work. The final movement must surely be one of the most exhilarating in the modern symphonic repertoire, with the two timpanists at either side of the stage battling it out in an epic exchange of blows. Again, as with Haydn, the ending speaks to a sense of optimism and triumph.
R. Strauss Concerto for Oboe and Small Orch.
- Lothar Koch, oboe with Berlin PO under Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
An interlude with Richard Strauss whose birthday fell this week on June 11. His Oboe Concerto has some similarities with the second movement of Nielsen’s 4th, the mood here is pastoral and idyllic. This was one of Strauss’ late great works, and I see him here as being in quite an Olympian mood, gazing down from the top of a mountain and taking in the pleasurable view. Written in 1946, it sounds not of its time but more like something of 50 or maybe even 100 years before, but what a splendid anachronism it is!
Strauss writes for the oboe operatically and treats it like a human voice. His use of the small orchestra shows a sense of delicacy and poise, and it could be that here he’s absorbed some of the trends of the Neo-Classical fad of between the wars. It stands out as one of the finest works in the genre, in a not too crowded field, which includes concertos by Mozart and Vaughan Williams.
Finishing with a bunch of works by Hungarian compatriots Bartok and Kodaly, which provided some interesting contrasts:
Concerto for Orchestra
Two Pictures, Op. 10 – In Full Flower & Village Dance
- Concertgebouw Orch., Amsterdam under Antal Dorati (Philips)
Kodaly Concerto for Orchestra
- Philharmonia Hungarica under Antal Dorati (Eloquence)
Two Portraits, (Op. 5), Sz. 37 – Ideal & Distorted
Romanian Folk Dances for Orchestra, Sz. 68
- L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet (Eloquence)
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of the most popular works in the Modern canon, so it needs little introduction here. This is one of those works that introduced many listeners to Modern music, and also one that from its first performance was a huge success. Written by Bartok at a time when he was unwell and suffering from the disease that was to kill him, it is a kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences, in effect summing up his entire career as a composer.
In this work he employs the traditional arch-form of five movements, with the middle movement being the ‘pivot’ and emotional heart of the piece. Beethoven used this structure hin is String Quartet Op. 132, so too Mahler in his Symphony #5 and Bartok himself in his earlier String Quartet #5. When I first heard that tragic middle movement it struck me as gut wrenching, and I can understand the view that this is an expression of the composer’s homesickness and sense of despair at being an exile, half a world away from his beloved Hungary which at that time was being torn to shreds by the war. The composer wrote “the general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life assertion of the last one.”
Compared to Bartok’s work in the genre, Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra has never received the traction or become half as popular, but in some ways that’s quite understandable since its a different beast entirely. Kodaly’s concerto actually predates Bartok’s by about five years but it too was premiered in America. Kodaly gave the score of the work to Bartok before he left Hungary to go to America.
Unlike the vague and ambigious opening of the Bartok piece, Kodaly’s one starts with a bang, ushering in this lively and catchy folkish tune that goes through the whole work. It alternates with a more lyrical and restrained melody that reminds me strongly of Renaissance choral music, especially of those layerings in Palestrina. Its almost Brucknerian, but not that heavy. A commonality with Bartok’s concerto is this very Eastern, kind of Asiatic writing for the flutes and piccolo, which goes back to the roots of ancient Hungarian music in Eurasia. It’s a unique sound that a number of Hungarian composers use and you’ll know it when you’ll hear it. Getting back to the Kodaly concerto, it is rounded off with the catchy tune coming back even more vigorously. A prominent framing device in the work, two trumpets forming a trio with a violin oddly enough, comes back towards the end as well.
I also took in some pieces that came quite early in Bartok’s career.
The Two Portraits reminded me very strongly of Richard Strauss, in terms of the string sonorities and sense of flowing melody in the first one and the agitated rhythms in the second one (The Dance of the Seven Veils from 'Salome' came to mind a bit).
The Two Pictures, although composed around a similar time to the Two Portraits, in contrast comes across as more or less mature Bartok. The first a lyrical movement which displays more delicate and transparent textures, and the second a rough folk dance.
Speaking of folk dances, I rounded this session off with the Romanian Folk Dances, which are more or less transcriptions of actual dances Bartok heard on his many travels in the South-East European region. With Kodaly he worked to document not only the music but also the history, costumes, artwork, furniture and so on of folk cultures which at the turn of the century with increased industrialization and urbanization, where destined to die out. They collected over 14,000 items which took decades to compile and they where only published in about the 1950’s in several volumes.
Incidentally, the Romanian Folk Dances where not of ethnic Romanian origin, but Hungarian. They where sourced from villages that used to be part of greater Hungary which where ceded to Romania after World War I. These lively and colourful pieces still form a core part of the chamber orchestra repertoire today.
The weekend’s listening. Again, the full details. Hope its not too much information (this is an essay!), but I have received some good feedback on these weekend 'dispatches,' so here it is again!
Starting with a contrast of two symphonies about the city of London, written over 100 years apart.
Haydn Symphony #104, “London”
Radio Luxembourg SO under Louis de Froment (BCI)
Haydn’s final symphony displays a level of tight thematic unity which in the Classical Era was only matched by Mozart’s late symphonies before it and Beethoven’s coming after it. One writer on music argued that, even on the strength of his series of London symphonies alone, Haydn was the most forward looking of all composers in the history of Western classical music. Big call to make, but the more I have listened to this masterpiece, that view makes sense to me in every way.
The first, second and fourth movements all have thematic links or hooks in common, the minuet being more or less a diversion. But the most amazing aspect for me is the final movement marked Spiritoso, and spirited it is! Coming out of a sustained note that sounds like a bagpipe drone, we hear tune thought to be of Croatian origin (Haydn grew up on what are now the borders of Austria, Croatia and Hungary). From that, we get many images and sounds of the city, principally this recurring rocking sequence dominated by timpani bringing to mind swinging bells. This is an image of London as a center of empire, of booming trade, of culture, a bird’s eye view of a city at its zenith.
And what of those innovations? Well to my ears, the way Haydn brings imagery like that looks way forward to the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov. The way he incorporates folk elements, bells and bagpipes looks forward to Mahler. The way he starts off the symphony quietly and vaguely makes me think Bruckner. & I can go on and on. Its just an amazing piece at so many levels, and a joy to listen to always.
Vaughan Williams Symphony #2, “A London Symphony”
London SO under Sir Adrian Boult (Belart)
As Haydn imaged London at one point in its history, so too did Vaughan Williams. This work comes from the early 1910’s, so pre-World War I. What its got in common with papa’s symphony is that it ends with bells – albeit with the famous chime of Big Ben.
Like Haydn’s symphony, I get images from this one in droves. A big difference though is that Haydn was a tourist in London, an outsider looking in. But Vaughan Williams was of course a ‘native.’
A watery feel given on the strings, bringing images of the Thames, begins the piece. We hear the city awaking from its sleep, Big Ben’s chimes gently played on the harp. Suddenly – similar to the Haydn symphony – there is this rush of energy. A dramatic flourish comes, which brings to mind the traffic filled avenues of the city.
My favourite part of the work is the second movement, which the composer said was inspired by “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon.” The mood is more somber here, lightened up by a lavender seller’s song played on the viola and the tinkle of a hansom cab’s bell played on some type of percussion (triangle?). There is an outburst amongst all this from the whole orchestra, which is sad but also hopeful at the same time.
The lightness of the scherzo brings to mind Ravel, who taught the composer briefly, but the middle section is typically English and rougher – coming from more sounds from a street seller, the cry of a cockney barrow boy. As it dies down the finale suddenly comes, a dramatic and dignified march reminiscent of Elgar, and bringing to mind images of a royal procession in the city. The end of this piece is a masterstroke, Big Ben comes back and reminiscences of some of the tunes from before, and it all subsides into that watery feel from the start. So another day over in the city.
Incidentally, in terms of visual art, I see Canaletto’s images of London to be the equivalent of this Haydn symphony and Monet’s images of the same city as very much like the Vaughan Williams:
String Quartets 14 “Death and the Maiden” and 12 “Quartettsatz”
Played by the Vermeer Quartet (Teldec)
An interlude with two of Schubert’s great late string quartets. The technical mastery and innovations are here no less than in the Haydn I’d just listened to – or indeed in Beethoven’s late quartets. The variations on the theme of the song “Death and the Maiden” in String Quartet #14 have the hallmarks of Schubert’s late style – a deep human quality, beautifully flowing melodies, but also something unsettling (and in the scherzo, bordering on psychopathic). The String Quartet #12 - most likely a movement of an unfinished quartet - also has that intense quality, rubbing up shoulders tightly with a lyrical theme that puts it into sharp contrast.
Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117
Ruggiero Ricci, violin (Eloquence)
Finishing this double cd set of violin sonatas played by Ruggiero Ricci, which I have been listening to bit by bit on weekends past.
Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin has been a difficult work for me to appreciate, but on this listen I garnered more from it than ever before (some of the thematic unity of the piece came through more). It’s a work that mixes Bartok’s innovations in sonority (microtonal) with his studies of Bach’s counterpoint and of course with the folk musics of South-East Europe. Incidentally, Bartok authorized a version for performance without the microtones, and this is the version performed here.
The piece was written for Yehudi Menuhin, who asked for the usual sonata for violin and piano. Bartok however, knowing the almost unplayable pianos that Menuhin encountered on his concert tours at the time, opted to provide a solo sonata so he wouldn’t have to rely on pianos at all. Another thing is that Bartok was of course an admirer of Bach’s solo violin sonatas, and he especially liked Menhin’s performances of them. So they where his models – eg. the piece begins with a Chaconne – and I see this as the 20th century equivalent of Bach’s masterpieces. Menuhin also asked another Hungarian composer and friend, Zoltan Kodaly, for a solo violin sonata. However it never materialized.
Bartok Piano Concerto #3, Sz. 119
Julius Katchen, piano with L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet (Eloquence)
Finally, a listen to Bartok’s final piano concerto, which I think has quite a few things in common with the solo sonata. The hazy string sounds at the beginning, the sounds replicating buzzing insects in the middle movement and of course the Bachian counterpoint are strong commonalities these works share, despite being in different genres.
Bartok originally planned this piece as a concerto for two pianos, which he could play together with his wife Ditta Pasztory Bartok. However, he was getting sicker by the day from the disease which was to shortly end his life, so he decided to write it as an ordinary concerto which his wife could play on her own. There is poignancy in this, as well as what Bartok wrote on the score (“vege” or “the end” in Hungarian). Indeed, the last seventeen bars of the work where incomplete at Bartok’s death and where filled in by his colleague, Tibor Serly.
The work doesn’t lack dissonance but it is more outwardly expressive than the two earlier piano concertos. As in what is considered his finest late work, the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok here returned to an aesthetic leaning quite heavily towards emotional expressivenss, unbroken melodies and more traditional methods of counterpoint. These may provide some of the reasons why its one of my favourite amongst all of his works.
The weekend’s listening, the usual long run down:
Dutilleux & Lutoslawski Cello Concertos
- Mstislav Rostropovich, cello with Orchestre de Paris under Serge Baudo & Witold Lutoslawski (EMI)
Starting with a commemoration of Dutilleux, who died just over a week ago. His cello concerto draws on Baudelaire’s set of exotic poems The Flowers of Evil, and has this nocturnal, visual and sensuous feel. Indeed, its been such a long time since I’d last heard this, that this time it came across as quite different from before. I got a kind of lush and almost Romantic feeling from this (the emotions), as well as having a firmer grasp in how the opening cello cadanza’s fragmentary ideas make their way through the work.
Also going into darker territory with Lutoslawski’s cello concerto. Its very much a battle between the cellist and orchestra, but not really in the traditional sense. The soloist starts off playing these repeated notes. It is very monotonous, and throughout the work there are these cacophonous outbursts from the brass section, which is autonomous from the rest of the orchestra (Lutoslawski applying his controlled chance technique here). There have been those who have said that this sense of conflict in the piece is like a metaphor for the struggle of an individual against the conformity of a dictatorship, Poland of course being Communist and behind the Iron Curtain at the time. Another thing is that the composer’s mother died before he started this work, so maybe that accounts a bit for its sense of mourning and grief in parts. Whatever the case its an amazing tour de force for both the cellist and orchestra, and a very unique take on the concerto genre.
The Maiden in the Tower, opera in one act (World Premiere Recording)*
Karelia Suite, Op. 11
- The Gothenburg SO under Neeme Jarvi *with Mari-Ann Haggander, soprano ; Erland Hagegard, tenor ; Jorma Hynninen, baritone ; Tone Kruse, alto ; The Gothenburg Concert Hall Choir ; Gunno Palmquist, chorus master (BIS label)
- Halle Orch. under Sir John Barbirolli (EMI)
On to an early work by Sibelius, The Maiden in the Tower. Written when one act operas where in vogue, its quite a lyrical piece and not a bad way to spend about 40 minutes of your time. Sibelius attended a performance in Vienna of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, which could have made him get the idea to do this kind of thing, but stylistically the influence of Wagner I think is stronger – especially in terms of orchestration.
The other two works don’t need much introduction here. Also coming from his early period, the Karelia Suite engages with the folklore of Finland’s most culturally ancient region. Finlandia was a work that became such a potent symbol of the country’s quest for independence that it was banned by the Russians. But it’s the kind of repetitive, static and almost minimalistic vibes that I like the most in the middle movement of Karelia, and the hymn tune in a part of it is very similar to the middle section of Finlandia. & the English horn solo in that middle Ballade movement, is quite similar to another Sibelius hit – The Swan of Tuonela.
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
- Melbourne SO under Hiroyuki Iwaki, recorded live in Melbourne, 1988 (ABC Classics)
Another commemoration, this time of the hundredth anniversary that passed this week of the premiere of this iconic work. Much has been written about this piece on this forum, and on radio here they’ve been talking about Stravinsky and playing his music a lot too. My earliest memory of this work was when a teacher played this for us, and I was quite amazed. I’d heard nothing like it before, from the opening bassoon solo and then those psychopathic jabbing rhythms, I found it quite gripping.
It seems common that works like this, and also Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, have introduced successive generations to Modern music. For many people, its where the journey into this type of music started. That adds to the significance of The Rite for many listeners, not to speak of its impacts and lasting influence not only on ‘straight’ classical music, but also on film music, and in areas like rock, pop and alternative.
J.S. Bach Sonata for Solo Violin #1 in G minor, BWV 1001
- Ruggiero Ricci, violin (from “Sonatas for violin” double album on Eloquence)
Rounding off with another piece by Bach on this set which I have been listening to bit by bit on weekends. I especially liked those intense motoric rhythms and counterpoint in the second movement, Fuga.
You are making my mouth water with all these lovely descriptions and no recordings!