Saturday, March 18, 2017

Some Mendelssohn fugues -- going back to Bach

Last Sunday, Lon Schreiber, at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC played the second of the three Prelude-and-Fugue pieces from Op. 37 by Felix Mendelssohn, the Prelude and Fugue #2 in G Major.  I remarked afterward that it really does sound like Bach.  Screiber let it end fortissimo, but this YouTube performance ends it quietly.

 I found that Op. 36 was the set of six Prelude-and-Fugue for Piano.  When I was a senior in high school, I was able to play #1, in E Minor.  The fugue breaks out into a heroic chorale in the Picardy E Major toward the end.  Serkin ends quietly, but I seem to remember bringing the volume back for the close.

When I was in graduate school in the mid 1960s at KU, my roommate had  a record player and one classical record, a Columbia of Biggs playing, among other things, the Bach G Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 541..

Picture: McCollum Hall, on top Mt. Oread at KU, is where I lived 1966-67.  It has now been demolished, to be replaced by more modern housing.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

Beethoven's Tempest Sonata (#17); why it mattered more to me as a boy than I realized

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, that is, Piano Sonata #17 in D Minor, Op. 31 #2, turns out to be more important to my own musical background than I had thought until recently.  I have to thank pianist Jonathan Biss for reminding me of this on his Facebook page on his Beethoven series.

The YouTube video below shows the music

Allan Schindler actually gave the work its nickname as he took the goings-on in the music (especially the slow movement) as evocative of the characters in Shakespeare’s play (“The Tempest”), which I saw put on by a college group in Dallas (on an arena-like stage somewhere around Greenville Ave. or SMU) in the mid 1980s.  I remember the eclectic plot, and the incipient mild homoeroticism of how the men (the male actors and dancers) had to be prepped to live in this comic paradise ruled by Prospero the Magician.

The music is remarkable for its elegance and simplicity. The first movement exposition starts on a dominant A major chord and sets up a question-answer paradigm in slow-fast alternation.  The music tends to hang on the dominant a lot, but intersperses harmonic adventures through the relative F major and its own dominant C.  But the second subject is (in Haydn fashion) a continuation of the first. Kempf doesn’t take the repeat, but he should

The slow movement, in a slow 3/4 with dotted rhythms, is indeed pensive enough and more harmonically adventurous (influenced by the counterpoint-generated harmonies in Bach).

The finale, a gentle Allegretto in the bare-bones time signature of 3/8, has always made me think of a winter sleigh ride (maybe Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on his visit to homophobic Russia, complete with birch forest).  I would say the same about the last movement of Sibelius’s Symphony #4 (in A Minor).  Here there is the same harmonic unpretentiousness, lots of use of dominant-dominated rhetoric, even in the twinkly grace.  The recapitulation (as with the first movement) gets more elaborate and is prepared by a cadenza-like passage, but in the end the music dies away pianissimo with a descending arpeggio.  This sounds like a work that is supposed to end softly and it does.

My second piano teacher wanted me to read this in my senior year of high school, as I best remember. At the time, I didn’t “like” the ending, although I do now.  But the harmonic gestures influenced my own Sonata #2 (spring of 1960), as had Brahms First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third.  But I did not have the full background in harmony that I needed to assimilate it all, so some of my own writing (in the cadenza like passages), still wound a but trite and hackneyed, and I am working on revisions of these.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Furman Singers perform at First Baptist Church in Washington DC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC today offered special music from the Furman Singers.

The group performed a cappella, “As the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”, by Williametta Spencer (text by English poet John Donne).  It followed with an offertory anthem “It Is Nothing to You” by Robert J. Powell.

There followed the chorus “How Lovely Are the Messengers” from St. Paul, oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn.

There followed “Thou wilt keep him In perfect peace” by Samuel S . Wesley.

Then there was the riskier “Daemon irrepit callidus”  (“The Demon. Speaks Expertly”) by Gyorgy Orban.

The Sweetheart of the Sun” by Eric William Barnum apparently refers to The Story of Ruth (which became a film in 1960, which I have just ordered from Netflix). Ruth, it will be recalled, was willing to make sacrifices, including arranged marriage, out of an unusual sense of family responsibility, and therefore became and ancestor of David and eventually Jesus.

The singers also perform (although not in this service) a song cycle called “Prayers from the Ark” by Ivor R. Davies.  The movements include “Noah’s Prayer”, and prayer from the Little Bird, the Cat (very feline words), the Mouse, the Raven, and the Dove.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Arthur Bliss: A big piano concerto, and other piano works

The Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor (1938, 39 minutes) by British composer Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) is sweeping, with a curious mixture of post-Romanticism and English pastoralism.  The style sounds like a combination of Rachmaninoff and Ralph Vaughn Williams (when in his loud and virile moments), with the latter contributing the modal harmonies and clashing dissonances based on half steps and tritones.

There is a sense of menace, and yet defiance and denial.  The first movement (like the concerto in the same key y Tchaikowsky), Allegro con brio, ends in its own Picardy major triumph. The Adagietto is centered a tritone away, in E.  The finale (Andante maestoso introduction; then Molto vivo)  brings back the sweep of the first movement, with a Rachmaninoff-style big tune in B-flat just before the rush toward the end and the final crashing octaves.   At the very end, the clashing chords remind one somehow of the conclusion of an Alfred Hitchcock international spy murder mystery.

I’m supposed that the work isn’t booked more often. It would be a real crowd pleaser.

The Naxos CD, with Peter Donohoe at the piano and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (2002, 22 minutes), offers the Sonata for Piano, which seems to be in A Minor, but is very chromatic and toccata-like.  It has three movements (Moderato marcato Adagio sereno< Allegro) and picks up momentum after a serene slow movement.

There is a sense that a concerto for two pianos and orchestra should sound “bigger” than a conventional piano concerto  That doesn’t seem to hold here. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor (12 minutes) has three short interconnected movements: Allegro giustp, Larghetto tranquill, Vivace  There is some of the same effect as in the piano concerto but it doesn’t come across as heroic here.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Bartok's last String Quartet, with its pianissimo finale

Recently I posted a scored recording of the Vaughn Williams Sym, 6, and now I have another somewhat similar work, the last of the string quartets by Bela Bartok.

There is no key signature, and the tonality is very chromatic and modal and influenced by Hungarian folk dances, but the underlying tonal center seems to be D.

Each movement starts with a slow theme in 6/8. Mesto, before going to the main movement.  The first movement is a more conventional allegro;  the second is a Mahlerian march, with the famous theme in intervals of a fourth.  The third is a burletta, with the famous string effects on repeated notes.  The last is the concluding “pianissimo”.  But Bartok, unlike Vaughn Williams, has some expression marks;  rising to mF, then F, and then FF in the violin on the last page before returning to pianissimo.  Some commentators do think that Bartok was trying to portray the desolation of war., lie Vaughn Williams and Shostakovich.

The other five quartets are  more joyous.  The first starts with a Beethoven-like fugue (resembling #14) but ends in a joyous dance.  Quarters 4 and 5 have the “arch” form and “night music”;  the 5th has a hurdy gurdy theme before the end

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Vaughn Williams: Symphony #6 : the ultimate desolation in a quiet ending

I recently posted a link (although a different one, with a picture of nuclear devastation) of this work, the Symphony #6 in E Minor , composed in 1946-47 by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

I posted it to mention the 10-minute “Epilogue” finale, which is a slow fugue in the strings, played in a continuous pianissimo, “without expression.”

The performance above is by Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony.  I have a Boult recording somewhere.  The poster notes a “ray of hope” or glimpse of Eden in  a reprise of a secondary theme near the end of the first movement.

But the music grows progressively darker, with its shifting modal harmonies emphasizing the tritone (diminished fifth), sometimes suggesting polytonality (of adjacent tonalities, a half-step apart).  You get a sense that the end is coming and that the door to your room is closed on you for the last night of your life, finally alone, without love.

I mentioned the idea of a epilogue in connection with the Epilogue of the “non-fiction” part of my DADT-III book, where I summarized my own take on what personal morality comes down (DADT-IV) . The Epilogue is titled “Some Symphonies Have to End Softly”.  This one certainly does.
The whole discussions started with Steve Bannon’s reasonable idea that, at a personal level, capitalism needs to be mediated by some kind of faith, because intellect alone can rationalize anything. But it’s when he gets into holy wars that I have trouble with what he advocates

Monday, January 30, 2017

Rachmaninoff's odd little Piano Concerto #4 in G Minor (note the very ending)

Somewhere downstairs I have a CD of Ashkenazy and Previn playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos 3 and 4, and today I thought I would make some remarks about the 1968 performance by Arturo Bendetto Michaelangeli  of the Piano Concerto #4 in G Minor, Op. 40 with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London conducted by Ettore Gracis.  In fact, I think that is on an old “Blue Angel” record downstairs two that I may have gotten about the time I finished Army Basic in 1968.

The Concerto is shorter and in some ways less “pretentious” than his earlier concerti (2 and 3) and less “expansive” but in some was more eclectic.  The harmonic progressions show a little bit of influence of jazz and of impressionism, at times (especially near the opening), the music seems to “hang” around the dominant key D Major too much (it opens on the dominant).

There is a big time in G of sorts, but it is a bit truncated and sounds like it comes from 1940s “tin pan alley” a bit. The very end has 3 FF G Major chord on the piano with the descending major third interval.  That same idea dominates the “second theme” group in my own last (Third) Sonata.  But at the end I take the “hymn” theme from F# Major back to a C Major Pedal Point with a couple of “polytonal” pivot points – and a lot of unresolved dissonance – so the pianist will have to control the melodic line (playing it back, a computer connected to Sibelius can’t keep the melodic line together, only a human pianist can do that).

The finale does have the interesting harmonic effect of a middle section in D-flat, a tritone away rom the home key, an idea not found often (Elgar does this in his first symphony).

The second movement (in C) is based on the on the nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice", a tune that was used in the opening of the first James Bond movie "Dr. No" (which I saw in the Cleveland Arcade back in 1965).