This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir. It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent. She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.
Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice. Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century. Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.
Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career. She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career. The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry. Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.
In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.
Rachel Barton Pine is one of the brightest lights of the solo violin in Chicago and worldwide. Her partnership with Cedille records (also a venerable Chicago based institution) has been both fruitful and revelatory.
In addition to the standard virtuoso repertoire such as Brahms and Beethoven this soloist has demonstrated a passion and a genuine interpretive feel for music by black composers. Were we living in a less racially charged time this focus would be of minor interest. But the fact remains that music by black composers, regardless of the composer’s national origin or the quality of the music, have been seriously neglected.
Indeed this soloist has become a sort of shepherd of the lost and neglected. Her recorded catalog is testament to her achievements in a really wide range of repertoire from the Bach solo violin music to neglected concertos and occasional pieces ranging from the 17th century to the present.
The present disc was an October, 2018 release I am reviewing for Black History Month. And it is a gem. No fewer than 11 composers, 5 of whom are still living. It is both an acknowledgement of some of the classics produced by black composers over the last 100 years and an introduction to new and emerging voices.
The recently deceased David N. Baker (1931-2016) is represented here in the first track, Blues (Deliver My Soul ) and provides a context immediately. The word “blues” is used to refer to the uniquely black musical form which consists of a poetic form in which the first line is repeated. The vocal styles that are the blues are probably the most recognizable aspect of this musical form. But one can’t miss the persistent subtext of the neglect of such fine music as yet another insult to widen the racial divide.
In fact many of these pieces are not, strictly speaking, blues. But that is not the main point here. Pine, along with her quite able accompanist Matthew Hagle, present a beautiful and wide ranging selection which presents some wonderful music and, for those with a conscience, illustrate what can be lost when listening choices are hampered by prejudice.
The Baker piece helps to create a context. It is followed by Coleridge-TaylorPerkinson’s (1932-2004) Blue/s Forms for solo violin. This man’s career alone is worth a book at least. His eclectic and learned musical style found him writing music for movies, television, and the concert hall. He was also versed in jazz and blues and even played drums with Max Roach for a while. These solo violin songs are a beautiful example of the composer’s melodic gifts. One can easily imagine these pieces programmed alongside the Bach solo music.
William Grant Still (1895-1978), truly the dean of black American composers, is next. His Suite for Violin and Piano is happily performed with some frequency and deserves to be recognized as one of the masterpieces by this really still too little known composer. The piece is in three movements, each a representation in music of a painting.
Noel Da Costa (1929-2002) is a new name to this writer. He hails originally from Nigeria but made his career in New York City. His “Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin” makes a nice companion to the Perkinson pieces. This is one of the world premieres on the disc. Here’s hoping we get to hear more of this man’s work.
Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) is another unfamiliar name. His Levee Dance is next. He was one of the lesser known of the group of early twentieth century black composers which included R. Nathaniel Dett, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Florence Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
By far the best known name here is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). One out of eleven here has “household name” status. He is represented by Wendell Logan’s arrangement of, “In a Sentimental Mood”. This is the premiere of this arrangement.
Now to the living black composers. This is a forward looking recording which pays homage to the past but also acknowledges a living tradition. Dolores White (1932- ). Her “Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin” add admirably to the solo violin repertoire.
Belize born Errollyn Warren is next with her brief, “Boogie Woogie”. Warren is a composer with a wide range and, while this is a fun piece, she has composed a wealth of music for various sized ensembles including orchestra. She was the first black composer to be represented at the famed Proms concerts. Wallen was a featured composer at Other Minds in San Francisco.
A slightly longer piece by Billy Childs (1957- ), “Incident a Larpenteur Avenue” gives the listener a taste of the work of this prolific composer. This is a world premiere which was written for the soloist. Childs won a Grammy for his jazz album, “Rebirth” in 2018.
Daniel Bernard Roumain is of Haitian roots and works in New York City where he works with turntables and digital sampling to augment his classical compositions. His work, “Filter for Unaccompanied Violin” is given its world premiere recording here.
Charles S. Brown (1940- ) concludes this amazing recital with, “A Song Without Words”.
This is a rich and rewarding recital which will take the interested listener into wonderful new territories. Listen, read about these composers, enjoy their artistry. This is just a beginning.
Ritorna vincitor! I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago. Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious) featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.
Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.
Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer. His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.
This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed. Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning. In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc. In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.
The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59). Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.
The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name. Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style. As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor. On this 50th anniversary of that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.
By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet. While there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.
The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980). The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.
As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”. Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture. Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.
Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley. It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.
During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16. More on that in future blogs. And now on to the second half of the concert.
Terry Riley’s energy belies his age. Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively. And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.
Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition. She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.
The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles. It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas. The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.
He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997). This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose. In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav. In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath. It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.
Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018). It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite. Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.
Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work. Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist. Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist. They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.
The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause. What a transcendent evening! What amazing artists!
Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer. A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.
Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.
Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School. That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.
But no matter. We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme. The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96. It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony. It is debatable as to how “American” these works are. Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.
Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever. It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving performance. This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.
Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”. It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements. His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic. His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes. Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.
Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes. He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago. This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain. His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.
The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo. Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect. This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing. He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement. It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening). As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.
Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet. It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.
Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music. The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.
I have heard varying opinions on the conducting skills of Osmo Vänskä. He is the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003 and, prior to that, a conductor of the wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra. I very favorably reviewed his Kullervo disc from last year.
The Mahler 6th and, I suppose, with pretty much any Mahler there are many critiques of the music and the performances. So many complexities with tempo, handling the massive orchestra to bring out one nuance or another, order of movements, etc. One thing is for certain, no Mahler aficionado will be satisfied with only one recording of each of his works. There appear to be no definitive recordings agreed upon by all. By contrast most people seem satisfied with perhaps Herbert von Karajan’s interpretation of the Beethoven Symphonies as being at least a good starting point.
One must recall that Mahler’s music was not well appreciated for a number of years. Though he gave performances of all his major works interest in them faded rather quickly after his death in 1911. Performances did occur but critics generally regarded Mahler’s music as dismissable efforts calling it “conductor’s music”. It wasn’t until Leonard Bernstein began earnestly performing these works that the current cult of Mahler actually took root.
I preface my review with these comments to say that I enjoyed this disc immensely with its gorgeous sonics (as always with BIS). Vänskä produces a lucid performance which differs from many in tempo choices and such but seems, to this reviewer’s ears, to do justice to this large and masterful work. In the end the experience is one of a valid performance (he places the slow movement as second) which provides another view of this complex work. And part of the cult of Mahler, it seems, is the need to own multiple performances.
This may not be the only Mahler Sixth you will want to own but it is definitely worth hearing, preferably on a good sound system.
This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended. Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time. This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways. He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.
Huang Ruo (1976- )
(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him. His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores. I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)
The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty. What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease. This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately. What a powerful piece!
After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”. But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context. At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work. Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen. It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.
In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo. Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.
Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally). This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention. It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng. Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times. There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.
Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements. Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time). These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves. The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present. Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.
In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows… Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image. The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”. In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.
The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well. He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style. He is a composer, conductor and vocalist. His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.
Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy. He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.
In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre. I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues. This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.
Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)
So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series. The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens. Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music. He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes. Some of those other works will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.
Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist. He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it. Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums. They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes. The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.
English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani. Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries. Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.
This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order. Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet. The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each. In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme. In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.
Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C. She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.
The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each. It also allows for a bit of improvisation. But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire. This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.
Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007). The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.
Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher, I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.
Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.
Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection. To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.
Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes. A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance. The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.
So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia. The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request. The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.
It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public. The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.
In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published. This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.
Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten. Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.
Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety. Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists. It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.
In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations. Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976. Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven. He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.
Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende. Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.
There are 36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times. Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.
This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th. Bravo, Sony!
The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.
I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps. His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire. What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances. There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.
In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general. Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent their composers as well as any I’ve heard.
Chatham’s new CD “Harmonie du Soir” on Northern Spy records was thoughtfully made available for sale at the ‘Secret Rose’ performance this past November. Of course I had to buy it but after that concert I found I needed time to digest the performance before I dare move on to listening to another of his deceptively simple sounding compositions. The CD consists of three compositions, Harmonie du Soir (2012), The Dream of Rhonabwy (2012) and a bonus track Drastic Classicism Revisited (1986/2012). All the pieces represent aspects of the artist’s output which will be familiar to fans of his work.
The first track Harmonie du Soir (after the poem of the same name by Charles Baudelaire) was premiered and subsequently recorded in France in 2012. In his liner notes Chatham points out that he uses tunings like those used previously in An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1986) and Crimson Grail (2007). It reminds this listener of Die Dönnergetter (1986). It employs the same configuration of 6 electric guitars, electric bass and drum kit. It is not, however, a reworking of the 1986 piece but rather a new piece which developed from similar methods. Harmonie clocks in at 22’26”, similar in length. The comparison ends there. The difference between Dönnergetter and Harmonie is more like the difference between a Beethoven middle string quartet and a late string quartet. Same ensemble, similar gestures but an overall very different impact. Like all of Chatham’s guitar pieces this is best heard at a substantial volume level if you want to appreciate the harmonics which result from the tuning system he uses. This is post-punk after all and the wall of sound is frequently an essential part of the piece. It begins with a minimalist type repeating of a 2 note pattern punctuated after a few repeats by the drum kit and on to some droning harmonies aching for a melody in an insistent rhythm. This moves on to a faster section which takes on not the dance-like character like he does in Die Dönnergetter, rather it is a sort of deconstruction. It is consists of guitar tremolos and rolls on the drum kit and moves into a new somewhat pointillistic guitar figure accompanied by a throbbing bass line and a steady rhythm on the drum kit. This is followed by a return to the music which opened the piece. Clearly this is a composer whose work continues to develop and show variety.
The second piece is another with precedents in the composer’s previous compositional efforts. This is essentially a piece for a wind and brass orchestra with percussion. No strings, no guitars or bass. It marks a return for Chatham to writing for and playing trumpet. The piece was written for a 70 piece brass band called Harmonie de Pontarlier, named for the town of their origin. It is 20’26” in length and Rhys plays trumpet along with the band. One is reminded of pieces like his Waterloo No. 2 (1981) which appeared on his CD “Die Dönnergetter”. The composer takes his approach to writing for band but here expands into symphonic proportions. According to the liner notes this was written as a soundtrack to a film. After multiple listenings I came to hear this as though it were an homage to grand romantic symphonists like Bruckner or Mahler. This is a briefer symphony than those ancestors would have written but the spirit is there if dressed in more contemporary guise. The music relies on sustained tones and intervals which, like Chatham’s guitar pieces, produce cascades of harmonics, a mesmerizing experience.
The last piece is listed as being a “bonus track”. It is Drastic Classicism Revisited and is a sort of reworking of Chatham’s earlier work Drastic Classicism from 1981. It was originally written for a dance choreographed by Karole Armitage and was performed by the musician live on stage with the dancers. Post-punk for modern dance. At 9’36” it is the shortest track but well worth its inclusion on this beautifully produced disc. I can’t wait to hear more from the Northern Spy (http://northernspyrecords.com/artist/rhys-chatham/) catalog. All in all a great listening experience by this wonderful expatriate American composer. I highly recommend it.
While I sometimes write music I spend far more time listening to and writing, or at least thinking, about music. And my performing chops need not even be discussed. But my compelling interest in music has been aided by my continuing efforts to improve my ability to read music.
I recall as a teenager the geeky thrill I got out of receiving an omnibus volume of orchestral scores which included Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’, Dvorak’s 9th and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd among others. The scores were compactly produced so as to fit a lot of music on not a lot of pages but they were readable. I spent hours learning to follow along as best I could learning along the way many of the subtleties of the music and enhancing my appreciation.
Now the digital age has at least a couple of apps for that. I recently downloaded the ‘Open Goldberg Variations‘ and the Beethoven Ninth apps from, of course, the Apple store to my iPad.
Open Goldberg Variations on iPad (Photo credit: musescore)
The ‘Open Goldberg Variations’ is a free app that includes a complete performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations‘ on the piano by Kimiko Ishizaka as well as a complete score with a cursor that handily shows you your place in the score as it is played. This is a useful learning tool on many levels.
It is a creative commons zero license which is basically public domain and is available for free. You can download an mp3 file or a wave file and you can download the iPad app which contains the recording and a score which is executed on the open access Muse Score composition program.
I have also downloaded the Muse Score program (available at musescore.org) and find it to be an extremely flexible and constantly developing platform that provides many compositional and analytical tools for a budding composer or a professional one included nested tuplets, harmonic analysis, provision for alternate tuning systems and a host of user created options as well. I intend to write more about this as I negotiate the learning curve.
Another iPad app which I recently downloaded is called, “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony“. It features 4 different recordings of the symphony (Ferenc Friscay and the Berlin Philharmonic from 1958, Herbert von Karajan and Berlin Philharmonic from 1962, Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic from 1963 and John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique from 1992). With each recording you can follow the score in contemporary notation fonts, the original manuscript in reproduction or a graphical representation of the orchestra highlighting which instruments are playing at a given time. In addition you can view what they call a “curated score” in which only the score parts for the instruments which are playing are shown.
Page 12 (right) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s original Ninth Symphony manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There are indicators of the key in which the orchestra is playing to aid in understanding harmonic modulations as well as a running commentary on what is happening in the music in a sort of poetic description written by David Owen Norris. The app, which retails for $13.99 USD seems to me to be a bargain for the interested listener or the student.
Learning to read music has greatly enhanced my ability to appreciate music and I think these apps are delightful and easy to use learning tools. I look forward to more of these in the future.
I wonder too if we will begin to see audience members following scores on their iPads in concerts. Interesting development. Perhaps this will motivate composers to do some creative interactive things with iPad apps in the concert forum.