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