BRITTEN, BLISS, BRIDGE and BERKELEY – FOUR ENGLISH MODERNISTS

Earlier today I sat down to listen for the first time to Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10.

Written in 1937 when the composer was 24 years old, this surprisingly mature work pays tribute to Frank Bridge, mentor to the younger composer. Scored for string orchestra, the music is playful and begs to be danced to, which it got to be after its Salzburg Festival premiere, having been choreographed most recently by Twyla Tharp and long before her by Sir Frederick Ashton.

The principal theme is subtly stated once. Each of the ten variations that follow have a character of their own, which sometimes in the style of another composer portray in musical terms an aspect of the character of Britten’s beloved teacher:  his integrity, his energy, his charm, his sense of humor, his traditional values, his enthusiasm, his vitality, his sympathy, his respectfulness, his musical skills, and, in the final fugue, the loving relationship between pupil and esteemed mentor-teacher.

Britten makes superb use of the strings, writing with amazing maturity and gleeful humor, utilizing a couple of dance forms: a tongue-in-cheek Viennese waltz and a bourrée, later contrasted with an aria, a march, and even a chant.

Lennox Berkeley composed his Serenade for Strings around the same time as Britten wrote his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The music of this brief, four movement work is essentially lyrical, elegant, quintessentially English, ending after the first three of its four movements in an elegiac Lento that signals a radical change of mood. His having resided in the Paris of the  late 1920’s inevitably must have influenced Berkeley, whose music owes much to the influence of Poulenc in its fluctuation from the giddy to the solemn in tone.

Frank Bridge’s heartfelt Lament is, as the other works in this CD are a brief and interesting composition, predating stylistically and chronologically those of the other composers featured in English Music for Strings.

Arthur Bliss wroteMusic for Strings, a colorful, vigorous composition that earned him wide recognition. At first a modernist influenced by Les Six, among others, Bliss found his place as a gifted traditionalist, one markedly different to his younger colleagues represented on this CD. He served in the Great War, wrote film music, operas, ballets, and chamber music in many of which he gave voice to the emotions elicited by his terrible experiences in the British Army. The longest of the works on this CHANDOS CD, this composition attests to the musical gifts of this unfairly underestimated artist.    

John Wilson leads the invaluable Sinfonia of London throughout the CD’s 19 tracks summoning rapturous playing from his all-string orchestral forces.

Rafael de Acha   www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

ZUBIN MEHTA LEADS HAYDN’s THE CREATION

Of the almost two dozen operas Franz Joseph Haydn – some for marionettes, some for human singers – none gave a hint of the genius for vocal writing the Father of the Symphony displayed in The Creation. Written roughly a dozen years before his death, Haydn had developed by the years 1796 to 1798 a complete command of composing for all the instruments available to him in his time as well as a gift for writing for the human voice.

In his two great oratorios – The Creation and The Seasons – and in his many sacred vocal works Haydn came to master the difficult art of setting text to music. He was right in respectfully avoiding assigning human character traits to his trio of archangel narrators in the first part of The Creation, opting instead for a neutrality in the vocal writing for Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass) that allows both music and text to remain elevated at all times to a sober narrative neutrality, while freely adopting musical forms rooted in Classical opera and German song.

Haydn’s choral writing in The Creation is exceptionally fine as are the imaginative mastery of orchestration and tone painting that he displayed in his Clock, Military, and Drum Roll symphonies. The sweep of the ocean’s waves, the roar of beasts, the upward flights of birds are all delightfully depicted, with a hint of humor at times. At other times abstract notions, like the dark nothingness that exists before the creation of the universe in the opening Chaos gets a harmonically vague stretch that is suddenly replaced by the creation of light.

Zubin Mehta, aged 84 at the time of this recording in November of 2020, led the excellent orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – incidentally on the very same stage where he made his Florence debut fifty years before – while guiding his fine trio of soloists – soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, tenor Maximillian Schmitt, and baritone Michael Volle with elegance and complete stylistic assuredness.

The Dynamic  DVD was directed by Tiziano Mancini and neatly produced and annotated.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE DEAN OF THE COLLEGE CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI

Dear Stanley:

I just read on the CCM website your open letter from June 3 addressed to the CCM community regarding CCM’s support for the Black community and for all people of color.

The term “people of color” is one with which many of us Hispanics with Caucasian racial roots take issue, for being wrongly included in the much-too-generalized “people of color” racial group.

My 50% Cuban-born late parents, late aunts and uncles, and most cousins have skin pigmentation no different to that of my wife, her family, and many of our Caucasian friends. On my father’s side of the family both grandparents, born in Cuba to Basque and Catalan parents were as white as my mothers’ stock of French and Catalan immigrants to Cuba.

Many of us identify as Hispanics and many as Latinos. That identification has much more to do with cultural factors than with skin color.

If I were a Hispanic with skin color tinged with brown I would wear it with as much pride as I do my Basque-Catalan-French heritage, cultural background and racial characteristics, which for Basques and Catalans and French and many Cubans of my acquaintance consist of many factors other than pigmentation.

CCM and many others of our cultural institutions are trying in good faith to catch up after years of ignorant neglect of underrepresented minorities. For your part in that you have the respect and gratitude of many Hispanics and Latinos of all hues, mine included.

Respectfully,

Rafael de Acha

Elīna Garanča sings Wagner

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča is featured in a recently released UNITEL video recording of a 2020 Salzburg Festival performance of Wagner’s WESENDONCK LIEDER, conducted by Christian Thielemann. The Austrian maestro leads the Vienna Philharmonic in the Felix Mottl orchestration of Wagner’s song group and in Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, “Romantic.”

While Richard Wagner was living in exile in Switzerland after running afoul of the German authorities in the aftermath of the 1848 anti-monarchy insurrection, he was befriended by the wealthy Otto and Mathilde von Wesendonck, who offered the composer and his wife their hospitality in a lovely cottage on their property.

Wagner was soon hard at work on his Tristan und Isolde. He also managed to find the time to write one of his most important non-operatic works: the Wesendonck Lieder, which he composed during a period of roughly eight months between 1867 and 1868.

The music of two of the five songs subtly evokes some of the passion and the intensity of Tristan und Isolde in its harmonies and in its texts; the later came from Frau von Wiesendonck, eliciting speculations of a possible romantic liaison between the composer and his patroness.

Originally written for voice and piano and later orchestrated by Felix Mottl, the writing is pure Wagner: rich with chromaticism and laden with barely contained emotion that repeatedly bubbles up in both the orchestral accompaniment and in the vocal writing.

Now in her forties and in the second decade of a major career, Elīna Garanča has risen to preeminence as the kind of singer seemingly able to take on just about any music written for her voice type. Her career has spanned a beginning as a Rossini-Mozart mezzo that quickly claimed ownership of the roles of Rosina, Angelina, Cherubino and Dorabella, to fairly recent successes in the dramatic roles of Princess Eboli in Don Carlos, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Delilah in Samson et Dalila and Didon in Les Troyens.

Wagner awaited, and the mezzo’s singing of Der Engel, Stehe still!, Im Treibhaus, Schmerzen, and Träume hints at things to come. Pehaps a Fricka, an Ortrud, a Kundry or a Venus await this artist sometime in the future, although for now one is content to enjoy Garanča’s unmannered vocalism, her sculptured phrasing, and the sheer beauty of her voice in many a lyric part

Christian Thielemann’s conducting is businesslike, elegant, and obliging though never subservient to his soloist. In Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, “Romantic” he crafts an architecturally cohesive interpretation of that composer’s most Romantic of his nine completed symphonies, drawing a perfectly balanced sound from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Michael Beyer’s video direction is superb, focusing on Elīna Garanča during the most part of the approximately 25 minute duration of the Wesendonck Lieder.

Rafael de Acha         ALL ABOUT THE   ARTS

What a slight!

A MESSAGE TO ALL THOSE FRIENDS OF MINE WHO RESPECT MY CULTURAL AND ETHNIC ROOTS. I INVITE YOUR COMMENTS.

A WEEK AGO… among the usual junk mail, I spotted a mailer announcing the Multicultural Awareness Council (MAC) concert series of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that purports to “Celebrate the rich African-American and Latine (sic) culture, history and heritage of outstanding artists and composers with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops.”Among the nine concerts listed – both CSO and Cincinnati Pops – there is one featuring the Disney cartoon COCO, apparently a token homage to Hispanic musical art and artists.

The remaining eight concerts all feature a long overdue lineup of pop and classical African-American musical artists in performances of a few American composers of color mixed in with the works of Caucasian musical artists.

Some of this is happening as the September 15-October 15 National Hispanic Heritage Month comes and goes, and among the nine announced concerts only one – a Disney cartoon musical – honoring our Hispanic Heritage?

A couple of days after receiving the announcement from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra I reached out to Julia Kirchhausen, Interim VP of Communications for the orchestra. Approximately a week has gone by and, to date, no response.

You can reach her at jkirchhausen@cincinnatisymphony.org if you wish.

Here’s a short list of Hispanic artists – some established, some up and coming – that could be featured in pops or classical concerts as part of Hispanic Heritage Month and beyond:

HISPANIC/LATINO BROADWAY AND POP TALENT: Javier Muñoz; Josh Segarra; Robin De Jesús; Krysta Rodriguez; Ricky Martin; Julieta Venegas; Juanes; Willie Colón; Jenny Rivera; Carlos Santana; Ana Villafañe; Giselle Alvarez

HISPANIC/LATINO CLASSICAL TALENT: Sonia Marie De León de Vega, conductor; Alondra de la Parra, conductor; Ileana Pérez Velázquez, composer; Yalil Guerra, composer; Elizabeth Caballero, soprano; Odaline de la Martinez, conductor; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Sandra Lopez de Haro, soprano

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Korean-American cellist Jonah Kim in a memorable album of music familiar and unfamiliar

The extraordinary Korean-American cellist Jonah Kim writes in the liner notes to the CD APPROACHING AUTUMN (D3585) a warm welcome to the listener of this album, and Delos’ always insightful David Brin opens up new vistas onto the music contained in this recently-recorded CD: Zoltán Kodály’s early-career (1915) Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8, its opener, Mark Abel’s Approaching Autumn, a 2020 composition for cello and piano, and Edvard Grieg’s 1883 Sonata for piano and cello, in which the cellist is partnered by the excellent pianist Robert Koenig.

Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8 clocks in at well over half an hour. As a work that features the cello as its one and only instrument it presents a challenge to both listener and player. The first must pay concentrated attention to this deeply Hungarian, melancholy, modal, folk-inflected music throughout three movements: an Allegro maestoso, an Adagio, and an intricate Allegro molto vivace.

For the player this is a technically daunting work, one that explores, in the words of the late Janos Starker, the cello “up and down”, so “down” in fact that the composer asks for the instrument that plays it to be tuned lower than the standard concert pitch of A440 in what musicians call scordatura so as to reach a note or two below the normally played lowest-most one in the average cello. There is that plus a mine field of glissandi, effects, percussive uses of the bow, contrapuntal hurdles, plucking, bending of the tone, and sounds that range from the lyrical to borderline humorous.

Kodály’s composition reveals yet another aspect of the genius of the multi-talented Hungarian educator, ethno-musicologist and composer who, along with his compatriot, Béla Bartók helped to gain a world-wide audience for the folk and concert music of their homeland. Jonah Kim dives into this music with courage underpinned by formidable technical prowess, with which he achieves a dazzling performance.

Mark Abel’s Approaching Autumn is a one-movement, 2020 composition, melodically forthcoming, harmoniously laid-out, often playful, eminently accessible, at times ruminative, unabashedly joyful at others, that offers a refreshing moment of solace after the demands  on both player and listener of the piece that precedes it on this CD. Jonah Kim and Robert Koening partner beyond perfection in this delightful work by the gifted American composer Mark Abel.

Quintessentially Romantic, folk-inspired, cantabile, dance-like, the Sonata for piano and cello, opus 36 is pure Grieg: uncomplicated, melodic, changing in moods throughout its three movements: an emotional Allegro agitato, a quiet Andante molto tranquillo, and a triumphant closing Allegro. Here, as in the previous two works in this superlative CD Jonah Kim and Robert Koening prove to be the ideal interpreters of this music, bringing to a close a memorable album of music familiar and unfamiliar.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A POWERFUL COMPOSITION BY YALIL GUERRA

Cuban American composer Yalil Guerra recently posted a recording accompanied by a visual of the score of his Sonata No. 1, Siglo XXI. The pianist is fellow Cuban Marcos Madrigal.

Guerra’s previous compositions had not prepared us for this new sound, one as energetic, as free-wheeling in tonality and structure as nothing heard before in his vast oeuvre, where this valuable artist has repeatedly embraced his roots as a musical artist equally at home in music that borders the Cuban pop world only to transition into elegant compositions firmly anchored in the classical idiom.

Guerra’s Sonata No. 1, Siglo XXI begins with a Larghetto movement, the work’s tonality not established at first. After a stretch of time during which the music visits several episodes, there is a return to the initial Moderato Misterioso motif and to its subsequent Allegro Furioso with its bass pattern of pounding triplets that characterize the movement. Save for one or two brief oasis of calm and an Allegretto Grazioso that quickly transitions to impassioned and restless, the opening Allegro Furioso dominates the movement.

The second movement is a lyrical Adagio Cantabile that seeks in vain a tonality to which to anchor itself. The music leads to an Adagio Amoroso, and from that onto a Largo Maestoso. Constant changing time signatures and keys – Ab…A… G… F… and their relative minors – resolve atonally at the end.

The third movement is rhythmic, in 6/8 and driven by cascading figures in the right hand’s highest register, with 2 against 3 duplets and triplets in the left hand. A Db Molto Espressivo section marked pp and further on a section marked Cantabile hint at Guerra’s Cuban DNA in a rhythm redolent of a 19th century Habanera.  That moment is bluntly interrupted by a return to the initial 6/8 pattern this time played ff and driven at full throttle to a dramatic ending.

Guerra’ new composition reveals yet again a fertile musical mind at work. The music of his Sonata No. 1, Siglo XXI seems to be in search of a tonal and harmonic center, looking for a melody, but set upon by uncertainty and emotional upheavals given expression in the highly rhythmic sections that threaten to drown out, though never vanquish the moments of lyricism.

Marcos Madrigal delivers a powerful performance heightened by awesome technical prowess and uncanny sensitivity.

(320) Yalil Guerra: “Sonata No 1. Siglo XXI” performed by Marcos Madrigal (Score) – YouTube

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

DAVID OISTRAKH in an impressive collection

ALTO (www.altocd.com) will be releasing this September DAVID OISTRAKH: Violin Masterclass (AOTL3144.2) a ten CD set including 24 violin concertos from Bach to Vivaldi in addition to much chamber music featuring the famed Soviet violinist.

David Oistrakh – one of the greatest Russian violinists – here is heard in transfers by Paul Arden-Taylor. Oistrakh made recordings for Melodiya, the Soviet state classical music label, later marketed outside Russia by EMI in Great Britain, Angel in the United States, and most recently by Warner Classics.

Among the contents:

Bach, J S: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor; Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major; Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61; Romance No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in G major, Op. 40; Romance No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra in F major, Op. 50

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 9 in E minor; Hungarian Dance No. 8 in A minor; Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor; Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26; Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46

… and violin concertos and various compositions by Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Glazunov, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Szymanowski, Hindemith, Vivaldi and Tartini.

Throughout many of the selections in this impressive collection Oistrakh’s playing of Baroque and Classical music by Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart is measured and sober, limpid and elegant. In Romantic music, especially that of his compatriots he excels with a formidable technique coupled to a broadly temperamental approach whether in the 19th century Tchaikovsky Violin concerto or in the 20th century works of Khachaturian, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.

In a long line of Jewish violinists among which Gidon Kremer, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin stand out, David Oistrakh towers for his untiring devotion to his art even in the direst of circumstances during World War II, when he fearlessly played in its entirety Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in the central music hall during in the winter of 1942 while Stalingrad was being bombed by the enemy. 

Here he is playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin: https://youtu.be/VYHfS1urmGc

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Music by a neglected Lithuanian master

In Jurgis Karnavicius: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 the ONDINE (ODE 1387-2) recording of Jurgis Karnavicius (1884–1941) last two quartets many of us are introduced to and impressed by the creative depth of this pioneer of Lithuanian concert music.

Inhabiting a stylistic period anchored by the great 19th Russian tradition at one end and the innovative tendencies of the 1920’s at the other, Karnavicius forged his own artistic path, creating compositions that resolutely reject the dictates of atonality without fully embracing any particular school of musical thought. Instead Karnavicius pens music that is freely flowing, unabashedly rhapsodic, romantic in inspiration though not Romantic in sound or structure.

His Quartet number 3 is divided into three movements: an opening Andante that immediately engages the listener’s attention, an emotionally charged second movement, Allegro by name but laden with vagaries of sentiment, and a concluding Lento. This unusual construct defines Karnavicius as a sui generis master, one ready not to reinvent the musical wheel but to imprint his music with originality.

The fourth quartet of Karnavicius has a traditional Allegro/Andante/Allegro structure, although it again evidences a compositional gift for the unpredictable, with episodic movements flawlessly held together by the composer’s genius. Still tonal, ever impassioned, the composition affords the members of the Vilnius String Quartet excellent opportunities to prove their mettle as estimable musicians, impeccable of technique, utterly musical, elegant and disciplined.

Throughout the disc the superb Vilnius String Quartet plays as a devoted ensemble of artists, fully engaged in the act of bringing to life an unjustly neglected and to date unpublished composition by a long-dead compatriot, who returned to his native country after years of teaching and composing in isolation in a Leningrad, a city where any innovative music was regarded with suspicion.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

The Escher Quartet plays Barber and Ives

For their latest offering the members of the New York-based Escher Quartet have chosen string quartets by Samuel Barber and Charles Ives.

The second movement of Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, contains the music that he later expanded into the famous Adagio for Strings. Barber flippantly described the piece as ‘a knock-out’ even though he decided to make the quartet a two-movement work presumably to spare his ever busy self any further hard work. Here the Escher Quartet has included the movement that the composer discarded.

The Quartet plays rapturously with its usual full, deep sound, delivering a moving performance of Barber’s music, lively in the opening Allegro, lyrical and emotional in the second movement, razor sharp and decisive in the closing Allegro. In the discarded third movement the question “why” looms large, given the abundance of compositional ideas that it contains.

Barber is followed by a couple of quartets by Charles Ives, as well as a brief set of 3 Short Pieces: titled “Holding Your Own”!

Like many other compositions by Ives, his First Quartet makes extensive use of revival and gospel hymns, quoting them in all four movements, at times tonally, while the quirky Second Quartet is described by its composer as a portrayal of “… men who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up, and then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.”

Both works deserve wider exposure than what they usually get in concerts of 20th century chamber music for the select few. Here they are given muscular, bold readings that alternate with sections of surprising lyricism.

The BIS-2360 recording gets the usual TLC from BIS’ Recording Engineers.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS