Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Mahler Symphony no. 7

performed by the Chicago symphony under James Levine (this is the performance I've been listening to, and it's a fantastic recording. The below is apparently the same, but some of the tempi [and the audio quality] seem off.....)



The above video is a fantastic one, and so I won't spend much time talking about the structure of the piece or doing a play by play. You just have to watch and listen. 

I'm assuming you've read Tuesday's article, Mahler Thus Far: Part II, to catch up on where this symphony fits in with the rest of his symphonic output up to this point. If not, go do that.
Welcome back.
So as we've said, this is the last symphonic work of Mahler's middle period, a period marked by success and ostensibly happy times in his life, a period of purely orchestral symphonies without traditional or folk melodies. 
This perhaps strangest of Mahler's symphonies was one I came strangely to like rather quickly. It's a large beast of a piece (are there any Mahler symphonies that aren't?) with its five movements, so the first few listens were lost on me, but the one advantage of the piece is that each of its five movements, at least to me, have a very distinct and kind of identifiable purpose or personality, so once I'd given it a few passive listens front-to-back, it really started to catch my fancy, and I went through a period of a few weeks at least where I was mesmerized by it, listening to every recording of it I could find and keeping my favorites on repeat for quite some time. It was captivating and interesting and dark and mysterious and I just couldn't get it out of my head. 
It's kind of the black sheep of his symphonic output. Even the other five- or six- movement symphonies have a more traditionally-laid out structure. People are perhaps most perplexed by the final movement, but for whatever reason, it really got to me. I loved it. Symphony, suite, symphonic poem, whatever you call it, I think it's riveting music. 
Anyway, let's talk a bit about its history. The fourth symphony had been premiered in 1901, the same year the fifth was getting its start, having been premiered in 1904, the same year the seventh was begun. The composer set it aside to finish up the sixth, and picked it back up some time later. It was finished in 1905, but not premiered until three years later, in 1908, and in Prague, not

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mahler Thus Far: Part II

In our last Mahler symphony post not all that long ago, we discussed the composer's smallest and extremely gorgeous fourth symphony.

The happy couple...?

That piece of the puzzle represented the filling in of a big hole in our coverage here of the Mahler symphonies, uniting the previously discussed 1-3 with the earlier written 5 and 6. In preparation for the writing of the fourth I did a small recap here of the first three Wunderhorn symphonies, as the fourth marked the end of that era for the composer.
Well, now, this week, we'll be marking the end of the composer's middle period, and it's time for part two of Mahler Thus Far.
The first symphony I wrote about of Mahler's was his fifth, almost reluctantly. A huge flaw in my analysis of some of these earlier pieces was that in lieu of listening to it and really understanding the big-picture idea, in writing about it, I would spit out the individual happenings and explain them as if they were unrelated, with no real understand of the whys and wherefores of the piece, and this is something that plagued my discussion of the fifth.
A confession and an apology. I'm sorry, Mahler 5.
After that, we jumped to his earlier symphonies. The writing of the fifth was prompted by my chance to hear it live and the misconception I had somewhere along the way that it was the most famous or well-known of Mahler's symphonies.
In any case, it was somewhere close to a year later, that the time came to write about the sixth. Those are the other two big players in the composer's 'middle period,' depending on who you ask, but for now, you're asking me, and that's how I think about it. Apparently some people group the

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Opera: L'heure Espagnole

Is it still called a concert if it's an opera?
I have a confession: this is the first opera I've ever attended, and one of only a few I've ever listened to from beginning to end. To my recollection, aside from L'heure Espagnole yesterday evening, the only operas I've ever listened to in their entirety are Wagner's Das Rheingold (a few times) and Verdi's La Traviata. That's it, as far as I know. Anything else would be more like secondhand smoke than real listening.
All of that being said, I have more than a few opera friends. While the real heart of this blog was originally intended to be piano repertoire, I found myself drifting more and more toward the symphony as the expression of music, the pinnacle of all that is epic and full and grand. Mahler and all that.

It's also music in a more absolute sense. While certain pieces have their programs (like ballet suites from Stravinsky or Ravel, for example, or even Mahler's early conception for some of his symphonies, they're just music... as in, I can listen to them at work or in the car (that I don't have) without following subtitles or finding a translation of a German/Italian libretto so I know what's going on for two and a half hours. What's more, the structure of (many) symphonies is directly related to the music itself... it's about the themes, their key, how they're treated, and the accompanying movements after the sonata form, a scherzo/minuet, a slow movement, whatever. Telling a story in new and inventive ways through a structure like this is somehow fascinating and enduring and familiar yet new every time.
So, to be perfectly honest, the idea of opera seemed.... cumbersome, complicated, overly involved, and foreign, in more ways than just linguistically. Thinking about it as classical music rather than cinema meant I felt it was something unfamiliar, this layout of acts as with theatre. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I was disinterested, almost opposed to getting to be familiar with opera, but I'd say that one large reason is that it isn't purely orchestral the way a symphony is. It involves the human voice (singing) and acting, stage, etc., all of which are things I'm frankly very unfamiliar with. The other main reason is that it's a slippery slope, that... opening up a new world to discover. It happens quickly, and I don't know that I can afford the time and effort necessary to fall in love with opera...
But I might be close at this point.
Yesterday, my acquaintance 湯發凱 the tenor played Gonzalve in a staging of Ravel's L'heure Espagnole and was kind enough to make sure I got a ticket. This performance would

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Brahms Symphony no. 3 in F, op. 90

as performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Gunter Wand


"Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect."
Brahms. One of the biggest composers of the 19th century and the Romantic era, and here, his smallest  or perhaps quietest symphony. For a reason. 
He wrote his third symphony around six years after he wrote his second, which I referred to as his pastoral in this article as part of our earliest big Germanic Symphony series. 
While the second felt quite pastoral in content and presentation, this one perhaps, as Eduard Hanslick noted above, is a strong contender for a perfect balance between the attitudes and styles of his first two symphonies, but don't let the apparent quietness fool you. There's some real tension here. 
In the interim between no's 2 and 3, Brahms had written such successful and enduring pieces as his violin concerto, the two overtures, and his second piano concerto (a monster of a piece). It's interesting perhaps, then, that what comes next is his smallest and in some ways, quietest, symphony. Hans Richter, the conductor of the premiere in December of 1883, considered it to be Brahms' Eroica, and apparently not just because it was also his symphony no. 3. 
The mascot of the other end of the 19th century music spectrum, Richard Wagner, had died earlier in the year, and his supporters tried to interfere with the premiere of the piece, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. After a few early performances, Brahms would make revisions to the piece and eventually publish it in 1884. 
(Spoiler alert: this is the composer's most personal symphony, and every movement, interestingly, ends quietly. More below.)
A significant thing to make note of for this piece is that... in many ways, while it feels overall soft and almost dainty (at least relative to his first symphony or second piano concerto), there is plenty of tension in the first movement alone, and it all stems from this F-A-F motto (with a flattened A), standing for the German frei aber froh (free but happy), an adaptation of his close friend Joseph Joachim's frei aber einsam (free but lonely). 


Brahms was, by this time, 50 years old and single (he would never marry, although he was engaged once), and apparently felt pretty okay with that, or came to be okay with it eventually. This F-A-F theme opens the piece, with three big giant chords, and a very conspicuous Ab, outside of the scope of the F major key of the piece; it is quickly replaced by a natural A, but the flat shows up here and there, apparently kind of 'undermining' the key of the piece and presenting some tension. This fantastic Gramophone article that you should read says that "the ‘A’ in bar two is an A flat, tipping the work instantly towards the minor key, with a sinister tritone adding to the sense of angst." So, free, but maybe not always happy. Or maybe not without struggle. 
What I enjoy about this movement is the balance between the two subjects of the sonata form. The first, as stated above, gives us the tension and some of the more enlivened, impassioned moments of the symphony, while the second subject in A, presented first in clarinets, is indeed free and

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Beethoven's Eroica: A Litmus


In preparation for another third symphony this week, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss for a bit something that struck me recently. I ran it by a few other friends to see if my idea was just kind of ridiculous, or also made sense when it resided in the brains of others. It seemed it did, so here it is.
I've seen Beethoven's Eroica performed live at least three times (including here and here and here, in chronological order) within the past year, and listened to many more recordings: Ormandy, Szell, Karajan, Bernstein, Chailly, Harnoncourt, Kubelik, Fürtwangler, Abbado, Norrington, and others.
As you can see from this article, I did ultimately settle on a favorite performance, and it is perhaps not one of the most traditional, i.e. it isn't Karajan or Bernstein.
Each of the individual performances I attended live was different, obviously, and each of the performances I've listened at home, each with a world-famous conductor and orchestra, is unique. I won't get into a discussion of the right vs. wrong or any of that because in many ways, it's subjective.
We can break things down into varying levels of certainty (and please remember, this comes from an avid listener, not a performer or conductor):

  1. Stuff that's written in the score: the notes, the most specific of metronome markings, the time signature, orchestration, dynamics, etc. These are all (in some degree or other, depending on the composer) laid out in the score. They are irrefutable, unless of course one argues about unsolicited changes to a score, typos, errors, etc. 
  2. Stuff that is or 'can be' implied about the performance and interpretation of the piece based on knowledge of its history, style, etc. No one would take the same approach to Mahler that they would to Mozart. This, while not written out, is implied to some extent because of what would have been expected at the time. Unless your name begins with D and ends in -aniel Barenboim, these stylistic considerations are of some general significance, but will be taken and applied with varying degrees by different composers. Less certainty here, more variation. 
  3. Conscious decisions made by the conductor/ensemble/soloist, etc. These more proudly qualify as interpretive or stylistic choices. As long as they violate neither of the first two points, they probably aren't technically wrong. Much of it also comes down to how much you value 'tradition,' whose tradition it is, and how you apply or treat it, traditional, conservative, etc. 
With these three layers of depth and decision-making involved, one might begin to be familiar with the way a certain conductor approaches a certain composer: Abbado's Mahler, Karajan's Brahms, Chailly's Bruckner, Harnoncourt's Schubert, Marriner's Mozart, Rattle's Schumann, Barshai's Shostakovich, and on and on. 
The business of picking one cycle that does all the symphonies of one composer justice is a tricky one even if that cycle is as 'small' as Brahms' four contributions to the genre. Once we get