Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Chopin Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 4

performed by Idil Biret

I must admit, I didn't care much for this piece the first many times I listened to it, but... Perhaps this isn't necessarily the sonata's fault. 
This piece is given the opus number 4, but it was actually published posthumously and subsequently given the early opus number, accurately reflecting the time of its composition rather than publication. This designation is a bit confusing, even misleading, because while it was composed early, for whatever reason it was not published then, and as we have seen, opus numbers reflect publication dates, as is reflected in the first two Beethoven piano concertos, among many other places. 
In any case, Chopin, whether intentionally or not, didn't publish this piece in his lifetime, and it remains to this day one of his least performed and least recorded works. In doing some research on this piece, I came across probably more distaste for it than almost any other piece I've read about or researched. I have some guesses as to why, and I won't share those quotes until I've shared my thoughts (which is hopefully also after you've listened to the piece).
In contrast with something like the previous Beethoven or Mozart sonatas, the opening of this one feels... odd. For one, it begins kind of in medias res, like we've opened the door and entered a room with someone playing a piece and missed the first few bars or an introduction or something. But no, we jump right to the first theme. I don't know why, but it feels like the last half of a phrase. It doesn't sound bad, but it sounds more like the ballades that he would later write, a linear narrative more than the complex sonata-form layout. Mozart's and Beethoven's sonata forms, at least in sonatas we just discussed, have satisfying, clean, identifiable expositions and repeats, and while this might seem boring, it gives an awful lot of structure and logic to the presentation of themes and what we should or shouldn't expect. 
Chopin's piano writing is, while still lyrical and idiomatic, is by no means his most effective or inspired work. If the second theme (if that's what I'm actually hearing) didn't reach some more thunderous heights, I'd almost believe it was a nocturne. The movement feels like it wanders, and the listener feels lost (or at least this listener does). There are places where we can easily identify the opening Cm theme in a major key (at around 2:50), and that clicks, (and we hear it again at around 5m) but I have to say, this is no more than just.... some pretty music that seems to lack inspiration or direction, which is shocking. We'll talk more about this later. 
The second movement was described in one of these links as 'derivative,' but I find entirely charming and pleasant. Perhaps it's that the listener doesn't expect as much drama or complexity or creativity from a minuet and trio, and while it may not be the most inventive thing he or anyone else ever wrote, I really enjoy it. It's sweet and easy to understand, but not overly simplified; it has the

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3

performed by Martha Argerich and Gautier Capuçon

What was one of the happiest times in your life, a time when you really genuinely wished everything would freeze and your life would stagnate in that perfect period in time and never change?
I assume that many people have a moment or few like that in their lives that they look back on, a combination of simplicity, happiness, often youth, good company, and sometimes entirely unexpected, that just seem... perfect, a period of time or an event that will never ever be repeated, but the memory of which continues to provide joy. 
Even some vacations, by the time they near their end, are ready to be done, and we feel ready to be home. There's something unidentifiably magical about these perfect moments, and Chopin seems to have had one in his early days. I found an excellent article about this piece with much more detail about it than the rather short Wikipedia article. On this site, Chopin is quoted about the piece. He says: 
I received your last letter […] at Radziwiłł's residence in Antonin. I was there for a week, and you’ll not believe how well I felt there. I returned by the last mail-coach and barely excused myself from extending my stay. As for my own person and passing amusement, I would have stayed there until I was chased away, but my affairs, and my Concerto in particular [the first, in F minor], not yet finished, and impatiently awaiting the completion of its finale, compelled me to leave that paradise.
The words above make me think of a few of those special times in my life where time seemed to stand still. At this point, Chopin was quite young, only 19 years old, and I think it's at this kind of impressionable age that many of us have these fondest of memories. Perhaps somewhere deep down inside we know they won't last... because life isn't ever that carefree for that long or whatever, but they're little milestones in the lives of many of us, perhaps chronicling time as "before [event]" or "after [event]." And it also stands in contrast with his later life, one that would be known for ill health and a lack of longevity. 
Anyway, this was what I thought of when listening to this piece. It's so completely, wholly optimistic and joyful.
The Polonaise was written within about a week in October of 1829, as mentioned above, on a week-long vacation, and I must say, writing a piece like this on vacation in only one week means

Monday, July 27, 2015

Chopin: Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" for piano and orchestra, Op. 2

performed by Idil Biret and the Slovak State Philharmonic orchestra under Robert Stankovsky

Eusebius came in quietly the other day. You know the ironic smile on his pale face with which he seeks to create suspense. I was sitting at the piano with Florestan. Florestan is, as you know, one of those rare musical minds which anticipate, as it were, that which is new and extraordinary. Today, however, he was surprised. With the words, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” Eusebius laid a piece of music on the piano rack. […] Chopin – I have never heard the name – who can he be? […] every measure betrays his genius!
Robert Schumann, quoted from this article, also linked below
I feel like this is a neat little trick. Not a trick, that sounds sly, but something that we've seen all three composers do so far, now that we're on our third in this little stretch of "early works of important composers" or whatever is the idea of taking themes from another composer and trying your hand at reworking them or recycling them in some way. Mozart's first four piano concertos were all orchestrations of what seem to be now otherwise-forgotten works, and Beethoven's little Dressler variations was the same, even though it is teeny tiny compared to the others and doesn't have an official opus number.
In contrast, Chopin's opus 2 is perhaps the grandest. Neither Mozart's four re-orchestrations nor Beethoven's small and slight Dressler march/variations have gained the fame and exposure that Chopin's reworking did. He also used a far more famous and enduring theme than either of the two previous composers, from one of Mozart's most famous compositions (sort of? maybe?). In fact I was watching Don Giovanni the other day and it struck me as "Hey, that's a Mozart theme," because I'd been working on this article and had completely forgotten that that opera is the source material for this piece, at least that segment in particular. So there's that. That's how I think of this piece of Chopin's.
But that's not entirely true. His teacher, Józef Elsner, of whom we spoke yesterday, gave the young Chopin (likely the entire class or group) a homework assignment: set of piano variations with orchestral accompaniment. There was nothing in the directions that stipulated it be Mozart's Don Giovanni, but Chopin certainly chose a snippet from the opera with lots of emotional material to work with. 
So in writing about the introduction, theme, five variations that make up this piece, there could hardly be a better discussion of the piece than the one found here, and I'd suggest you just... go read that. I'll try not to regurgitate too much of it here. 
The introduction is quite dark at the beginning, but this maybe shouldn't be surprising, as the opening to Don Giovanni is also quite heavy. Things get a bit softer when the piano enters. Aside from the final variation, this introduction is the longest section of the piece, and I feel right from the entrance of the piano that although we are using Mozart as our jumping-off point, the piano writing is idiomatically Chopin. Unmistakably so. But remember, at the time, no one knew that. He was a young not-even-twenty year-old-composer/pianist who kind of jumped onto the scene with

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Chopin Rondo in Cm, op. 1

performed by Idil Biret from her Chopin box set, or equally excellently below, by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Today, we begin with a new composer. Could there be a more logical choice? I suppose there's Schubert, but he didn't make it this round. 
We've talked about Mozart and Beethoven, both of whose teachers are quite famous. The former's primary teacher was his father, Leopold Mozart, himself quite a respected teacher and musician. Beethoven's primary music instructor was Josef Haydn, although there were others at different times. There is also speculation that he may also have received some instruction from Mozart on an occasion or two. Regardless, they come from rather well-known pedigrees. 
What about Chopin? Can you name his teacher(s)? 
I couldn't. 
Let me introduce you to one Józef Elsner, a Silesian composer who has a somewhat enormous oeuvre of his own to his name, and recognized the young Chopin's talent early on. He himself composed polonaises, waltzes and rondos, and was one of the earliest composers to weave Polish musical elements into his works. He also composed 38 operas. Still, Wikipedia states he is perhaps most famous for being Chopin's teacher. He noted of his pupil in some notebook:
"Chopin, Fryderyk, third-year student, amazing capabilities, musical genius."
Also, please watch the below video. I'm sorry if you'd had enough of András Schiff with the Beethoven lectures, but the man is himself a wealth of knowledge and talent. There are six parts to this biography, but the first will suffice for our purposes here. 

No lessons.... a miracle indeed.
The piece today is not a common one, apparently among pianists, even among

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Beethoven: Fidelio

The firsts.
Also, could this have fit any better into the schedule?

This was to be my first opera experience, but that title subsequently went, somewhat unexpectedly, to Ravel's L'heure Espagnole, a piece I had the pleasure to attend last month, one I felt to be an excellent first-opera experience. But this was very different.

Last night's showing of Fidelio put on by our National Symphony Orchestra was a performance I had been looking quite forward to for some time, and was the first time I'd attended anything inside the National Theatre, across an enormous courtyard at the Chang Kai Shek Memorial hall from the National Concert Hall, at which I'm a regular. Choosing seats was different. I'd never been there, don't know what the view is like, where I should be sitting... so I trusted the nice lady at the desk and figured spending a bit extra on a ticket should mean I have a pretty good vantage point from which to enjoy my first real opera experience, and did I ever.
It's unnecessary to say how different Fidelio is from L'heure Espagnole, so I was eager to see a large production like this, even if it isn't considered one of the greatest must-see operas in history.

Opernhaus Zürich
Andreas Homoki, Arturo Gama, Martin Andersson,
Ann Petersen, Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Miklós Sebestyén, 林慈音, 蔡文浩, 巫白玉璽, 洪宜德,
古育仲, Chorusmaster, Taipei Philharmonic Chorus,

Where do I begin?
For one, as I'd been told, the sound in the National Theatre (or any opera house, I assume) is very 'dry', entirely free of echo. It's a very different atmosphere from the concert hall, whose (tiny) echo suddenly becomes very apparent, an openness to what's going on to let the music swell and fill the room, but starkly quiet here. It's also an extremely gorgeous hall. While the currently-under-renovation concert hall is handsome, with dark coffee-colored hardwoods and white marble facades carving out the space, the theatre is opulent and feminine.
The staging for Fidelio was also quite minimalist. The entire thing was framed inside a gray box, with only one open side, that toward the audience, much smaller than the actual space the stage would allow. It was covered in what looked to be a soft gray suede or fabric of some fine texture, and the entire production was in black and white: clothes, props (all two of them), everything in grayscale (solid black, white or [the same] shade of gray), a very modern, minimalist layout, but one