Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Franz Liszt's "Second" Symphony: Dante's Inferno, and then a gentle salvation (and an optional ending)

Franz Liszt composed a “Symphony #2”, the “Dante”, and I have a Varese Sarabande recording from 1982 with the Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Varujan Kojian. 

The first movement, in D Minor, called “Inferno” running 18 minutes, will sound familiar, echoing Liszt’s orchestral tone poem idiom, with lots of use of the augmented fourth interval (tritone).  Essentially in sonata form there are some thematic similarities to the opening movement of the Faust Symphony (which is in C Minor).  The music becomes extremely violent toward the end and crashes to a close, using the augmented fourth interval until the very last “fortissimo” octaves on D.

The second section (22 minutes)  has two movements, a quiet Purgatorio, emphasizing the strings, and then a restful Magnificat, where the Utah Chorale joins in (directed by Newell Wrighr). From a purely musical sense, it seems anticlimactic.  So Liszt provided an optional coda, of 55 seconds, ending loudly and triumphantly on a B Major chord, which is an odd relationship with the first movement.
The CD notes say that the optional ending was not available on the original LP release.  It also expresses the opinion that it seems superfluous, at least in the mind of the author of the liner notes.  It provides the ability to program the CD playback to start the coda three seconds after the quiet original ending, but the CD itself allows about 40 seconds at the end before the coda starts.  To my ear, the coda makes sense if played without pause.  The work as a whole should end triumphantly, depending, of course, how you perceive the Afterlife.  I wondered what the Mormon Church (in Utah) thinks of Liszt’s somewhat self-serving use of theology – Liszt liked to please the Pope. 

The work could be compared with the 16-minute "Dante Sonata" for piano (March 15, 2009), also in D Minor, and ending triumphantly (unlike the B Minor).   
Optional endings have been provided at other times.  The Liszt “De Profundis” (July 4)  fantasy provides an optional bombastic outburst on D Major chords (which is quite overwhelming) after an original quiet ending. The Prokofiev Symphony #7 in C# Minor (called “comfort food” by some) ends quietly, but offers an optional romp of about 10 measures afterward to end loud and fast.  I’ve always wondered if Dvorak could have done this with the “New World”, because I’ve never understood the sudden diminuendo on the last chords.  Some conductors end Schubert symphonies (especially the Great) with diminuendo on the last chord, but others don’t. “Completed” symphonies (Schubert’s Unfinished, #8 – which really works well when the “missing” movements are performed, and #10, and Mahler’s #10, can offer temptation to play with endings.  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Max Reger's "Sinfonietta" is a full-fledged quasi-Mahler symphony

If you want to find some Mahler-like symphonies, you look at Shostakovich (like #4), Profokiev (like #6), and Havergal Brian (several of the larger early works).  But you can also look at Max Reger.

The Sinfonietta in A Major, Op. 90, is actually cotemporaneous with middle Mahler, introduced in 1906, but it is really a full four-movement symphony for large orchestra.  I have a Berlin Classics CD with Heinz Bongartz conducting the Dresden Philharmonic back in 1973 (ADD), a performance that runs exactly 50 minutes.
The first movement has the unusual (for post-Romanticism) marking “Allegro moderato quasi allegretto”, almost as if it were from an early Beethoven sonata.  The music starts out with a light touch, climbing in triple meter in the strings, and, despite the gentle merriment, becomes thicker.  But it’s the scherzo, “Allegro vivace”, a cruncher in complex meter in D minor, that gets your attention.  It sounds closer to Bruckner than the other three movements.  The constantly modulating angular dance theme yanks you around.  It invaded one of my dreams some years back.  The movement is very formal, with a contrasting trio with many restful, shimmering effects, before returning to the “big rip”.  The movement still sounds formal throughout, even to the fortissimo, Bruckernian close.   The theme itself may remind some listeners of the “scherzo” (also in D Minor) of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto.  The slow movement, Larghetto, has a solo violin part player by Gunter Siering.  The finale, Allegro con spirito, combines all the effects of the first three movements, becoming contrapuntal and fugal (typical of Reger), and restating the mean scherzo motive near the end, before ending triumphantly and joyfully.  The program notes suggest that Reger had intended something like a “Serenade” but the work comes across as fitting right into the world of middle Mahler symphonies and Strauss tone poems. 
The CD includes two 12-minute art songs for alto and orchestra, with Annelies Burmeister, alto:  “An die Hoffnung” (“In the Hope”), Op. 124, and “Hymn of Love”, Op. 136. 
Max Reger’s Violin Concerto, in A, is one of the longest in the literature, running over an hour.  (So does Wilhelm Furtwangler’s Piano Concerto). 

Wikipedia attribution link of picture of Dresden, which I visited in May 1999 for one day (in the former East Germany). 

Saturday, July 05, 2014

For a Capitol Fourth, I do a "long march"

I had intended to attend the entire Capitol Fourth (performers) but I took longer than I expected at Quigley’s near the GWU campus, and walked down 17th Street to the Mall, finding the road ahead anything but straightforward.  I went through security once to get onto the Monument grounds, and then left the secure area to get on the Mall (since Constitution Ave. seemed blocked) and started hearing music. 
But it wasn’t from the bandstage;  it was from offshoots of the Smithsonian folklife.  I encountered a rock band called Vankib. 

Later, I encountered something like a Raja from India.  But none of these seemed to come from the China and Kenya exhibits for Smithsonian Folk Life.

Finally, I got to a second checkpoint (near the Botanical garden) and got to the concert around 8:50 PM.  Frankie Valli was singing and there were several numbers from “Jersey Boys” (Jan. 5, 2012 here).

It’s hard to add much to the Tchaikovsky Overture Solenelle, the 1812, except that it is fairer to play the entire piece, not just the bombastic closing section. 

Friday, July 04, 2014

How many piano concertos did Franz Liszt compose?

\We learn, of course, that Liszt was “Hungarian” when we take piano, but a little reading shows his German heritage and, besides Wagner, there is hardly any other composer who so typifies “German romanticism”. (Mahler was born in what is now the Czech Republic, so birthplaces don’t mean too much.) 
Hyperion records has a set of the complete Liszt works for piano, and the “Music for Piano and Orchestra 2” is particularly interesting.

It turns out that Lizst gave us four piano concertos, not just two. (Actually, maybe the count is six.  I’ll explain below.)

This set (Leslie Howard at the piano, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karl Anton Rickenbacher in 1997) does start with the A Major “Piano Concerto #2”, which I always liked better than the first (I remember listening to it on the little Zenith radio in the bedroom on WGMS in the late 1950s). But it then offers the Psalm “De profundis: Psaume instrumental pour orchestra et piano principal”, a 36 minute “Fantasy”, centered in D Minor, in six connected sections. There is an andante “sonata form” with the “profundis” Plainsong as the second subject, and a cadenza, that leads back to the original material to make a first movement.  Then there is a Chopin-like Polonaise in C# Minor.  The music returns to the opening material to give us a “slow movement” now in A-flat (a tritone away), and becomes quite moving and expansive, Bruckner-like.  The scherzo-material comes bacj, Then the same material gets reworked for a march-like finale.  Before the end, the music dies momentarily, as if to allow some contemplation, than returns with a final burst of D-Major apocalyptic glory.  The orchestra is supposed to be a chamber orchestra, but at the end the music calls for everything, even the organ at the end of “Ad nos”.   Some performances (embedded above) end quietly, without the closing flourish, but on YouTube Imre Rohmann with the Budapest Symphony includes it here

The final chords are omitted on a different recording on YouTube with Stephen Mayer pianist and Thomas Vasary conducting the London Symphony.  I much prefer it with the fortissimo close.

The closing march is (also) important to me because it resembles, at least harmonically, the triumphant theme in the same D Major at the end of my second Sonata (1960), shown above.  I must have heard this work on the radio on WGMS at least once (it’s hardly ever performed) and it stuck.  The theme uses mediant and submediant harmonies a lot.

The first disc rounds out with the Liszt Orchestration of the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy.  It’s fine as piano solo, but with the piano-orchestra transcription (not exactly a “recomposition”) we essentially have a piano concerto from Franz Schubert, on the scale of “The Great” C Major.

The second disc offers the Concerto Pathetique in E Minor.  I recall seeing the piano solo score for this when I started with my second piano teacher, at the end of ninth grade, when the first teacher had suddenly passed away of colon cancer.  The orchestration here seems to be by Eduard Ruess.  As a “piano concerto”, the 25-minute work is very effective. The main theme is very familiar, and was used by Hollywood in the 1940s in a mystery film whose name escapes me.  The coda is prolonged, as Lizst plays one final chromatic game.

The disc goes on to offer Liszt’s “improvement” of Weber’s “Konzertstuck in F Minor”, which seems unnecessary.  I wouldn’t call it a recomposition, Andres-style.

It then offers the “Totentanz” (with its superfluous little coda at the end) and the “Fantasy on Hungarian Themes” which seems to follow one of the Hungarian Rhapsodies.
The set offers a 17-minute “bonus” CD, “Hungarian Gypsy Airs” (“Ungarische Zigeunerweisen”), which seemed relatively trivial to my ear, by Sophie Menter, written with Lizzt’s help and orchestrated by Tchaikovsky.

To explain further (“Vox style”) about the extra piano concertos, the first set includes (besides the Piano Concerto #1 in E-Flat, whose very chromatic-scale-centered score actually invokes the enharmonic  “D#-Major”)  the “Malediction” Concerto for Piano and Strings in E Minor, and “another” (posthumous) Piano Concerto in E-flat, S125a.  There is a recording on YouTube of this work (15 min) with Stephen Mayer, and Thomas Vasary with the London Symphony.