Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brahms Solo Piano Works

I've reached Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), one of my favorite composers. There are many CD's of Brahms' music in my collection, so I will have quite a few entries on him and his compositions.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a musician, Brahms showed early talent on the piano. In his teens he got work as a piano player in dockside brothels. It is thought that these settings gave him his lifelong aversion to women, although there were a few who stole his heart. One of those was Clara (Wieck) Schumann, about whom we will have more to say in the Brahms entries.

At the age of twenty, Brahms went on a tour as accompanist to Eduard Remenyi, a Hungarian violinist a few years older. Several months after the tour began Brahms was introduced to Joseph Joachim, a world renowned violinist, and the two hit it off. When Brahms left Joachim to continue the tour, he was encouraged to meet Robert Schumann when he reached Dusseldorf. However, at that time Brahms was resentful of Schumann, as during a concert tour which took Robert to Hamburg, Brahms had sent an envelop to Schumann to obtain his thoughts on the works. Schumann returned the envelop unopened.

After leaving Joachim, Brahms and Remenyi went to Wiemar, where Franz Liszt held court. The meeting with Liszt did not go well, prompting a split with Remenyi. Brahms went back to Joachim for a while, before setting out on a walk along the Rhine, visiting friends and relatives. He had a letter of introduction to Schumann in his pocket, though he still had sour feelings for Robert. Everywhere Brahms went, he was encouraged to pay a visit to Schumann. It wasn't until he visited someone with a collection of Schumann's scores that he had a change of heart. He found Schumann's music to be very much to his liking.

Brahms finally did visit Schumann and his wife, Clara, and the couple were amazed at the solo piano works of Brahms. He was invited to stay with them for a few weeks (an invitation he nearly turned down - it wasn't until Clara went on a search of Brahms did he realize that the Schumanns were sincere). It was during this time that Schumann wrote The Article, sometimes referred to as The Curse. Schumann a former editor and creator of periodicals dedicated to music, wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that a new prodigious talent was afoot, a new Beethoven who was "destined to give ideal expression to the times." While this spread the word throughout Europe about Brahms, the article put a lot of pressure on Brahms, which is why it took so long for him to write his first symphony.

At a San Antonio shop selling overstock books, CDs, and other media that I obtained a collection of six CDs of Brahms solo piano works. I have been listening to the first two CD's of the set, which contain the some of the works Brahms played for Schumann on the day they met. CD 1 contains the Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1, a Scherzo in E Flat Minor, Op. 4, and a set of Waltzes, Op. 39. CD 2 contains Piano Sonata No. 2 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 2, and Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5.

The Op. 1 sonata is an amazing work, and it is no small wonder that it impressed Robert Schumann. The first movement (an allegro) sets the stage for the entire collection, a powerful opening theme as memorable as the beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. There are some wonderfully lyric passages throughout the sonata, as well as in the scherzo. The twenty-one waltzes of Op. 39 are each very short (only one of which is over two minutes long) but are really fun, too.

The second CD's sonatas are performed by Helene Grimaud. I don't have another recording with which to compare, but it seems to me that the tempi Grimaud plays are too fast in some sections, and too slow in others. Though she is undoubtedly a very talented player, her speeds take away from the performance, and the works. I may someday find another recording, to see if I am right or not.

For the works by Brahms, I plan to start with the simpler works, work up through the chamber works, then on to the symphonic works; the two serenades, the concerti, and the symphonies. I'm really looking forward to add my experiences to the blog.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Chopin's 'Soul and Heart'

From the Wall Street Journal

March 1 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great composer and pianist Frédéric François Chopin. Or was it? Not according to his sister Ludwika, Franz Liszt and Chopin's close friend Jules Fontana. They all said, at one time or another, that he was born on March 1, 1 809, despite Chopin's insisting his birthday was a year later. To add to the mystery, there is a birth certificate issued by the parish church in Brochów, Poland (and on display there to this day)—near Zelazowa Wola, the small town outside Warsaw where Chopin was born. It gives us still another date: Feb. 22, 1810, the same date inscribed on Polish monuments and on his burial site at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Chopin was born of a French father and a Polish mother, and though he lived half his life in Paris, his heart and soul were always with Poland. His passion for music showed itself early—even at age 3 he would cry whenever he heard it. His mother, an amateur pianist, decided to give him lessons and taught him what little she knew. Fortunately, both his later piano teachers recognized the boy's genius and did not try to force the conventional methods of playing on him. They let him go his own way, freeing him to become the unique, great pianist he was.

.At age 7 he wrote his first composition and gave his first public recital—to tremendous acclaim. He continued studying piano and composition at the Warsaw Lyceum and gave highly successful concerts that made him the toast of Warsaw.

In 1831 Chopin moved to Paris, where he spent his time performing and teaching piano. It was there that he met George Sand, who became his lover. The two spent many summers at Sand's country home in Nohant, where Chopin composed some of his greatest music.

After their eight-year love affair ended in 1847, Chopin was never the same. He died less than two years later. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, but the autopsy stated "cause unknown." His close friends agreed that he died of a broken heart.

In 39 brief years Chopin managed to compose over 180 works for piano, and except for three piano sonatas and two concertos, most of them last no more than three to five minutes. Chopin's mastery of the genre shows itself in his magical preludes and mazurkas. His 24 études, which are basically technically challenging exercises, have been transformed into beautiful music by Chopin's genius.

The ballade, full of dramatic intensity, mainly inspired by Polish epic poems, was a new musical form invented by Chopin. He converted the scherzo, originally a musical jest, into a work of a completely different nature. "How is gravity to clothe itself if humor wears such dark veils?" Robert Schumann once observed of these works. Chopin also transformed the polonaise, a dance that predated him, into a Polish processional march. One Chopin polonaise even gave us the popular song "Till the End of Time."

Chopin was born just as the Romantic Period started—in fact, he was one of its initiators. But in his outlook he also harked back to the Classical Period of Bach and Mozart—the only two composers he really loved. He blended classical restraint with romantic feeling, detesting any exaggeration that would turn sentiment into sentimentality. To recognize that is to play Chopin's music the way he wanted it played—the way he himself played it. Yet there's more to it than that. To play his music as he felt it (as we learn from his writings) is to free it of all earthly bonds. As artists, that is our greatest challenge.

Chopin's physical strength was limited not only by his delicate physique, but by his battle with tuberculosis. As a result, many who heard him perform in public auditoriums complained that his tone was almost inaudible. Yet genius that he was, he found a way to handle and transcend his limitations. He devised a tonal palette scaled down to the softest sound possible, increasing to a mezzo forte (half-loud) that sounded like a fortissimo by way of contrast.

Like the man, Chopin's music was a mystery. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, nor has it been since. Liszt would introduce Chopin to friends with words that captured that otherworldly quality: "I want you to meet a man who comes from another planet."

No word is more important in describing the playing of Chopin's music than rubato. It comes from the Italian word robare, to rob, but in music it means "give and take." If you steal a little time here, you've got to give it back. For example, in playing a melodic phrase, if you go forward in the first two bars, you must pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical pulse. The classic feeling will come from the left hand, which Chopin insisted should be played as evenly as possible. Then the right hand can have its romance and play as freely as the left hand will allow. Every performer will use that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the "disciplined freedom" that makes Chopin Chopin.

Chopin said the Polish word zal—a "bittersweet melancholy"—best described much of his music. Paradoxically, it can also mean anger, even rage, an emotion also found in Chopin's musical vocabulary. Schumann agreed, describing Chopin's music as "cannons buried in flowers." For example, listen to the Ballade in G-minor and the Scherzo in C-sharp minor.

When I was 7 and first "met" Chopin, his music touched a special place in me that nothing else had. I wanted to know more about the man. I discovered he was, like his music, filled with intense emotions and tender poetry.

It was not only playing his music that brought me close to Chopin. In 1955 I visited Nohant, and had the thrill of unexpectedly meeting George Sand's granddaughter, Aurore Lauth Sand. She was 11 when her grandmother died in 1876 and remembered her vividly. To have played a Chopin nocturne for her, in the very room where it was written, was one of my life's most unforgettable moments.

Then in 1990 Andrew Borey, the great-great-grandson of Chopin's sister Ludwika, walked into my life. This charming, elegant Polish gentleman and I became very special friends. When I recorded an all-Chopin CD in 1996, you can imagine how moving it was for me to have Andrew and his son George sitting on the stage with me.

Chopin's own words perhaps best describe him: "Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man."

Chopin knew that climbing higher was not the only way to reach heaven.

Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin. PBS will air a documentary about his life in October and J. Wiley will publish his memoirs in the fall.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

William Boyce (1711-1779)

The CD player has been serenading me with the symphonies of William Boyce, or, at least the eight symphonies of his Op. 2.

Something mentioned in the Wikipedia link (isn't that a great source of info?) not written in the CD liner notes is that Boyce, like Beethoven, went deaf. Unlike Beethoven, however, he did not continue to compose, but did go on to complete works of his teachers.

Generally speaking, the Baroque era is said to run from 1600 to 1750. These eight symphonies are each partially inspired or borrowed from some of Boyce's earlier works; the symphonies themselves were published in 1760. Musicologists will warn us not to take era dates as hardbound boundaries, and in this case it is good not to do so. These symphonies definitely have late or High Baroque styles. Except for the sixth of the set (which has two), the symphonies have three movements each. These are short works, with the longest being the eighth which is a little under eleven minutes long.

Most of the works have a French Overture for the first movement, followed by dance-like movements. They do not always follow the Haydnesque formula of the second movement being slow, and the third movement a minuet-and-trio form. As might be expected from the practice of borrowing from other works to make new ones, the eight symphonies have a hodge-podge of movement structure.

Listening to the CD, the works remind me of Handel's Water Music, which is also in the French Overture form. These are light works. I don't recall ever hearing them on classical music radio. Were it not for Robert Greenberg's course on the symphony, I doubt I would have heard of them at all. That would be a shame; though lately I've not been in a mode to listen to much Baroque era music, I have enjoyed these. It is also interesting to hear pre-classical era symphonies.

A YouTube search brings up several examples/movements of these works.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Another of the Mighty Handful

I've discussed members of the Russian Mighty Five, five mostly self-taught composers from the Romantic Period who turned away from German music in favor of a more Russian form of great music. One of them was Balakirev, about whom I wrote earlier. Borodin remained an amateur for most of his career, teaching science and chemistry in order to pay for his musical hobbies. In my collection I have two of his symphonies (one, the third, was only a sketch, and was orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov, another of The Five), some music from his opera Prince Igor, and his two string quartets.

His Symphony No. 2 in B Minor wasn't a smashing success at its premiere, but a reworked version with changes suggested by another member of The Five, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, did win some acclaim for Borodin. I've found in listening to it personally that I have trouble finding something to hook onto structurally. I suspect it will take more listening in order to find my own way into the work. From an auditory distance, I like the symphony, with its exotic sounds and conversations between orchestral sections.

I find the quartets a little easier to understand, perhaps because they seem to stick closer to Western structure, though, with them, too, I can't seem to find my way into the works.

Borodin's most famous works come from his opera Prince Igor, with music from the Polovtsian Dances used in the musical Kismet. The most recognizable part is the "Stranger in Paradise" theme, as well as other dances from the opera. Sarah Brightman has recorded a version with lyrics, as has Tony Bennett and numerous others.

Wikipedia has an explanation of who the Polovtsians were.

I find it hard to say much more about the music, especially given the citations I've given for Borodin's biography as well as his small output of music. There's none of the music I don't like, and I look forward to spending more time with it. I suspect such Russian Nationalist music is an acquired taste, and what little I do get out of it makes me want more.

Taking the Scenic Route

While listening to Keiko Matsui's CD White Owl it occurred to me that I am not as familiar with her other recordings as I am with that one. So, as a sort of side trip, I will be listening and learning about her and her music on occasion, writing about what I've heard on this blog, along with the classical music.

I'll probably do the same for my Bob James collection, as well, at some point. In any event, I appreciate that you read the blog, and hope for more comments!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bond Reclassified

Fans of the string quartet Bond will get the pun in the title.

I'm not sure where I first learned of the group. I used to belong to the now gone BMG Music Club (which has turned things over to, a sad situation, as just doesn't do the job as well as BMG did - in their sales e-mails, they push groups or performers of whom I've never heard, and none of them classical music artists), which picked them as Selected Recordings on occasion. I seem to recall my Mom telling me about them, too. At any rate, I added their "Best of" recording, Explosive, to my collection last year. It's a DualDisc that has the CD on one side and a DVD on the other. The DVD includes the entire CD in Surround Sound, plus has their music videos. And for Christmas I was thrilled to get their performance DVD from 2001, Bond - Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

For those not in the know about Bond, checking out the links I've included will reveal that the quartet consists of four very hot babes playing the string instruments of a string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a 'cello). Their web site claims that they are the "MOST POPULAR STRING QUARTET IN THE HISTORY OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY." Problem is, they aren't a string quartet. The lead performers are a quartet, but they have keyboard players, a small string ensemble, guitar and bass players, plus percussion and drummers as part of the group.

Their repertoire consists of original works, plus arrangements of classical music gone electric. At first, I just thought that they might be controversial, but didn't really question their classical music classification. But it was brought up in an interview included on the Royal Albert Hall DVD that, in Britain, they had been "banned" from the classical charts. My knee-jerk reaction was what is typical of me when I hear of art work being banned, which was a mild case of outrage. It wasn't until I went back to the CD in preparation for this entry that I realized that, not only are they not a quartet, they aren't classical performers, either.

That's not to say that they aren't a blast to hear, and even more of one to watch. I like them, a lot, and I like what I suspect are the disturbances the group causes classical music snobs. I'm sure they have the talent to play classical string quartet repertoire; they even have some tracks played using acoustic instruments.

But the CD is not going back into the classical music bookcase; nor are the ones I have on order (by the way, I have got to stop this blog from leading me to buy more music!).

The thing is, even though they use classical music in some of their performances, that doesn't make them classicists. An analogy would go like this: I drive a vehicle made by GM. I'm sure there are common parts (nut, bolts, paint, adhesives) among their various offerings, but that doesn't make what I drive a Cadillac.

By all means, I recommend their recordings. It's fun stuff, very inspired, and a far sight better than the disco versions of some classical works that bubbled up during the '70s. Their original works are great. And, finally, they are, well, four very hot babes, along with being talented musicians. But their CDs belong on the shelf with the pop-rock recordings.