Only 88 hammers on the piano, you say? Pity!

January 12, 2013

Only 88 hammers on the piano, you say? Here are more!

When Marc-André Hamelin brings his latest delicious, over-the-top, home-baked treat to MusicTORONTO, the confection will be iced with enough piano-insider jokes to give a pianist’s fingers cavities.

Hamelin will venture where few living pianists dare to venture and none can quite bring off with the Montreal-born pianist’s deadpan nonchalance – and chops!

Hamelin’s 10-minute take on Paganini’s fearsome 24th Caprice had a Moscow fan quivering with delight and an audience unable to contain laughter when the Canadian pianist introduced the piece to the Moscow International House of Music one year ago – and to over 40,000 additional fans via that fan’s YouTube video of the performance.

“One of the best days in my life. EVER. I cannot even express how Marc-André’s concert overwhelmed me with ecstatic glee,” s/he wrote in awe of  ‘The Omnipotent.’

Hamelin, of course, is playing his way down a path with a rich history, where the performer is also composer. Pianistic bravura first became the stuff of billboard legend in the 1830s, in the wake of the fabulous success of Paganini, the first in a long line of traveling musical virtuosi.

Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), cadaverous appearance, left foot forward, neck of the violin pointing down, devilish sounds


There was something about the tall, cadaverous Paganini that inspired wild urban legends. Paganini himself went about fanning the flames with glee. He remained aloof from his audience. He deliberately broke strings to demonstrate that four was too many when it came to playing his ferociously difficult music. He wasn’t above using his phenomenal technique to imitate the cries of animals or bagpipes. Paganini, they said, was in league with the devil.

Franz Liszt (1811-86)

Liszt, emulating Paganini’s transcendental bravura, married charisma with content, bringing wider credibility to the mid-19th century celebration of technical prowess.

Liszt's earliest rival, aristocratic, Swiss-born Sigismond Thalberg (1812-71), whose party trick was dividing a melody between both thumbs amidst cascading arpeggios – giving the illusion of three hands. The trick wore thin and he soon became known as Old Arpeggio


Henri Herz, (1803-88), Austrian-born, whose nimble fingers propelled him to the top layer of salon pianist-composers in Paris in the 1830s and 40s. His vast output of potpourris, variations and other morceaux, his piano factory and round-the-clock teaching made Herz immensely wealthy.















Alexander Dreyschock, (1818-69), Czech pianist with a renowned technique emanating from two right hands, according to one informed, if confused,witness



Hundreds of pianists from across Europe began to vie for attention as Paris became the centre of the piano universe.

Piano wars inevitably resulted.

All these pianists came to the public’s attention at a happy confluence of evolving instrument, evolving public concert and evolving piano technique.

Their operatic fantasies, mostly forgettable, flooded the market. Those by Liszt – and, later, Busoni – set the bar as high as it would go.

When it came to re-creating art from art with the piano transcription, Liszt simply had no equal. In all, he made 145 arrangements of other composers’ music, from Schubert songs and Beethoven symphonies to the stunningly virtuoso masterpiece Réminiscences de Don Juan.

Liszt’s piano transcriptions led to the 19th century becoming the golden age of piano transcription.

Not that the art of transcription itself was new. Its roots stretch back to mediaeval times and to some of the earliest music we know.

Transcription then thrived in the Baroque, with Bach setting the gold standard by which we measure a composer’s success in transforming one medium to another – a violin concerto by Vivaldi, say, into a keyboard concerto by Bach.

Tivadar (Theodor) Szántó (1877-1934). Marc-André Hamelin includes Szántó's grandioso transcription of Bach's Great G minor Fantasia and Fugue

As performer-composers, many of the great composers we are familiar with before Chopin and Liszt were skilled keyboard performers. But none focussed on technique and wrote music to exploit this technique to the same degree as the 19th and early 20th century composer-pianists.

The late Dutch pianist Rian De Waal, who was writing a book on the art of piano transcription before his untimely death in 2011, sees interpretation and transcription as two sides of the same coin.

“In interpretation,” he says, “you try to find out what Beethoven or Schubert could have meant in writing this piece. In making a transcription of the same piece, it is about your own reaction to the piece: your feelings towards it, your fantasy that’s stimulated by it and, very important, the wish to make it available for your instrument.”

Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938)


The great auto-didact and pianists’-pianist Leopold Godowsky regarded the transcription as a musical essay on a musical subject.
Marc-André Hamelin has recorded Godowsky’s brilliant transcriptions on the Chopin Etudes and Strauss waltzes.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)


Rachmaninoff, whose music also appears in Hamelin’s MT recital, was one of a generation of pianist-composers whose piano transcriptions delighted audiences on his many concert tours.



The piano transcription as an art form declined in popularity decade by decade throughout the Twentieth century to its present status as an endangered species. Memories of Kempff playing a handful of his elegant Bach transcriptions in the Seventies remain a cherished memory. And even more vivid memories of working with Earl Wild in London on a radio feature about his hair-raising piano transcriptions remain another. Both these very different pianists had roots that stretched deep into the romantic past and both were willing to make their own transcriptions a focal point of their recitals. Today, when not conducting, Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev helps keep the tradition alive with his Nutcracker and Prokofiev transcriptions. There are others. None more so than Marc-André Hamelin whose January 22 concert will be a date for the memory books.

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
– Bach/Szántó, Fauré, Ravel, Paganini/Hamelin, Rachmaninoff
Tuesday January 22, 2013 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre,
St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

© copyright Keith Horner 2013

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Mendelssohn in Love

September 13, 2012

Mendelssohn in 1829 James Warren Childe

Mendelssohn at 20. Watercolour made during his first visit to England in 1829

There’s a back story – a love story – to the remarkable quartet by Mendelssohn that the Attacca Quartet brings to MT later this month. A love story that lies in the shadow of the powerful, intellectually compelling A minor quartet, Op. 13, the first quartet that Mendelssohn wrote for a public audience.

In it, the 18 year-old composer is prepared to throw caution to the winds in a way he would find impossible for most of his adult composing life. It was something of a gamble – and Mendelssohn’s risk-taking resulted in one of the cornerstones of today’s quartet repertoire.

By bringing together the spontaneity of the moment with deeply considered rational thought, the young Mendelssohn took the string quartet into territory the genre had not previously visited. “The subtlety of the young Mendelssohn’s procedure is intellectually breathtaking,” says the prickly, notoriously demanding critic and pianist Charles Rosen, “but it ends up as deeply expressive.”

The expressiveness, in part, stems from Mendelssohn’s bright idea of basing the quartet on the music of a short love song he had written earlier in 1827. Titled Frage (‘Question’), this slender slip of a song plays by the rules and conventions of polite society, raising the temperature of the blood by a single degree at the most – on a hot day. But it’s in the transformation of art song to string quartet that Mendelssohn’s genius shines through. The song becomes the goal of the entire quartet. “You will hear its notes resound in the first and last movements, and sense its feeling in all four,” Mendelssohn wrote to the Swedish composer Adolf Lindblad. “I think I express the song well, and it sounds to me like music.” Mendelssohn even titled the song “Thema” and published it facing the first page of the quartet when the quartet full score was first published in 1842.

Frage (‘Question’), Op. 9 No. 1

Is it true
That you wait there for me
In the arbour by the vineyard wall?
And ask the moonlight and the stars
About me too?

Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, can only be understood
By she who feels as I do,
and is true to me
Forever, remains forever true

‘Is it true?’ – the first words of the song – open the quartet as a short, questioning motif that will underpin the entire work. They also echo another rising, questioning musical motif ‘Muss es sein’ (‘Must it be?’) from Beethoven’s final string quartet, Op. 135 – by means of which Beethoven constructs an entire movement in search of a resolution. Beethoven had died earlier the year Mendelssohn wrote his A minor quartet. His entire score is riddled with technical ideas borrowed from four of the late Beethoven quartets, recently published – and, of course, the most progressive music of the day. While Mendelssohn quickly absorbed and built upon this music, few at the time understood it. Mendelssohn’s father Abraham disliked late Beethoven and racked his brains trying to figure out what his son was trying to say with his A minor quartet. Then, much to his son’s dismay, he concluded that he hadn’t been saying anything at all.

But back to that song. The 18 year-old Mendelssohn wrote the words himself, disguising his authorship with the pseudonym ‘H. Voss’, (according to the memoirs of his brother-in-law Wilhelm Hensel).

Who was the object of his attention?

By 1827, the year the quartet was written, Betty Pistor had been a childhood friend of Felix and his younger sister Rebecka for several years – from the time that Felix sang alto in the Berlin choir to which they belonged. Musical parties were frequently shared in both musical households. In 1828, Betty Pistor’s astronomer father purchased the musical estate of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. With the opportunity of frequent visits to the Pistor family home, Mendelssohn eagerly took on the task of cataloguing and sorting Bach’s papers. In 1827, both young musicians had become members of the select Berlin Singakademie group directed by their mutual teacher Carl Zelter, Mendelssohn’s boy alto voice by now traded for the role of piano accompanist. Mendelssohn was 18, Betty (Dorothea Elisabeth Pistor (1808-87)), one year older.

The Mendelssohn family home at 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin became the Upper Chamber of the Prussian Parliament after Mendelssohn's death. Mendelssohn's mother described its garden as "a park, with splendid trees, a field, grass-plots and a delightful summer residence."

“I am composing a quartet for you,” Mendelssohn told Betty the following year. This was to be his next quartet, in E flat (both were published in 1830). But Betty did not know that Mendelssohn added the secret dedication ‘To B.P.’ on the score and frequently referred to it in letters to his sister and friends as the ‘B.P.’ quartet. In the previous summer, while working on the score in England, Mendelssohn wrote to his close friend, the diplomat Karl Klingemann, of “carnations lying near me on the score of the quartet for B.P.” Then, in January 1830, to mark Betty’s 22nd birthday, Mendelssohn gave her a copy of another song he had written and copied onto fine blue manuscript paper, with an original sketch by his brother-in-law on the cover. The young musicians met, as usual, at the Singakademie choir rehearsal. “We were very merry along the way there,” Betty recalled in her family memoirs.

Just three months later, writing to his friend the violinist Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s shock is palpable: “Hear now and take alarm: Betty Pistor is engaged. Totally engaged. She is the legal property of Dr. and Professor of Jurisprudence Rudorff. I authorise you to transform the ‘B.P.’ on the score of my quartet in E flat to a ‘B.R.’ as soon as you get confirmation of their marriage from the Berlin newspapers. It will take just a skilful little stroke of the pen – it will be quite easy.”

Betty Pistor did not hear of the dedication until three decades later.   According to the Rudorff family memoirs, written by her son, the composer, conductor and teacher Ernst Rudorff: “Betty’s feelings for Felix Mendelssohn were never mixed with any elements of passion. . . She was the elder of the two, and it is known that in early youth, a girl is uninterested in younger men.”

What more could he say? Betty Pistor was, after all, his mother!

Attacca Quartet – Haydn, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn
Thursday September 27, 2012 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright Keith Horner 2012

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Dancing on the graves

August 15, 2012

Brahms left slim pickings for the musical grave-robber. He composed in his head, not in a notebook – directly to his C:\\, as it were.

Brahms also burned his sketches – reducing PhD candidates to tears. He also admitted to destroying dozens of completed works that fell short of his own exacting standards.

Sibelius, too, left behind few bone fragments, though there was a minor rattling in 2011 when a partial skeleton for the ‘lost’ Eighth Symphony was pieced together. Listen to these lean, mysterious, if tantalizing Sibelius fragments here.

The lost Sibelius Eighth Symphony?

The lost Sibelius Eighth Symphony?

Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, flung open the cemetery gates with a staggering 800 pieces of juvenilia he himself exhumed. Now, almost a half century after his death, they’re still tinkering with the  BTC  (Britten Thematic Catalogue) numbers in the Red House in Aldeburgh, whenever they come across a fresh work that Ben wrote in the cradle.

Britten’s contemporary and sometime friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, is receiving similar loving curatorial treatment. Moscow’s  DSCH publishing house threatens 150 hard-cover volumes of the new collected works, 25% of which are previously unpublished, including “more than a hundred lesser know, or unpublished works by the composer.”  The Brentano have pounced on one of these – what’s believed to be an abandoned draft for the first movement of his Ninth Quartet – and set composer Stephen Hartke to work exploring what he refers to as ‘a sense of disquiet and emotional preoccupation’ that underlines Shostakovich’s recently unearthed musical fragment.

Many musical corpses have remained unburied for centuries. Take Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. If the title alone (not Schubert’s) does not present a sufficiently provocative challenge to the musical antiquarian, Schubert’s sketches for a third movement are irresistible. I recall interviewing English pianist Frank Merrick in the early Seventies about the 1928 Columbia Gramophone Company competition, which he won, to ‘finish’ the Unfinished. [I felt there was more of a story in Merrick’s many songs to Esperanto texts at the time, but the Schubert story was wanted by those who paid the bills]. Twenty years later, another interview, same story – finishing the Unfinished – this time when Brian Newbould brought his Schubert ‘realisations’ to the Festival of the Sound (including the Schubert quartet fragment, D.703 that the Brentano’s program will re-examine).

As though to tie a bow on Gustav Holst’s seven-movement suite The Planets, one neat-freak composer added a planet to Holst’s astrological fantasy to include Pluto (Colin Matthews: Pluto the Renewer) – which became a questionable inclusion for programmers once Pluto was down-sized to ‘dwarf’ planet. Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony fared better with the splendid posthumous creative collaboration of English composer   Anthony Payne.

‘At the point where the composer introduces the name B-A-C-H in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died,’ wrote his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (above) on the manuscript. The Brentano will perform Gubaidulina’s intense, often searing meditation on the incomplete fugue from The Art of the Fugue which rises in intensity as the music climbs ever higher on all four instruments.

The half-dozen fragments that the Brentano are bringing would grace either half of a string quartet program by themselves – even without the new works they have inspired. Of the oldies, only the Bach (the final, incomplete Contrapunctus from The Art of the Fugue) – and not even the Haydn (his final quartet, Op. 103) – has been played previously for MusicTORONTO.

‘Hin ist alle meine Kraft, alt und fehwach bin Ich’ – ‘Gone is all my strength,old and weak am I.’ Haydn published the two movements of his final quartet with these words by way of an apology. They also appeared on his calling card (above).

The Josquin and Dufay, too, are receiving their MT premières, deeply buried in a new score by American Charles (‘All my composing life, I’ve done things with and to old music’) Wuorinen.  The Schubert and Mozart are both discarded quartet movements. American composer Vijay Iyer took up the challenge of dancing on the grave of the latter: “I get laughed at whenever I tell anyone that I’m finishing an unfinished Mozart string quartet,” he reports.

Brentano Quartet – Fragments: Connecting Past and Present.
Fragments by Schubert, Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart. New works inspired by them by Wuorinen, Adolphe, Gubaidulina, Harbison, Hartke and Iyer. Thursday September 13, 2012 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright Keith Horner 2012

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Uncovering the roots of Bartók’s string quartets

March 08, 2012

Béla Bartók transcribing his phonograph recordings of folk songs


“The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time it is void of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive . . .  and a composer in search of new ways cannot be led by a better master.”


Bartók had been led by his own advice for more than two decades when he penned these thoughts in an essay in 1930.  Folk music is the very life blood of Bartók’s six string quartets, as we’ll hear when the Tokyo String Quartet embarks on a journey through this landmark of the quartet repertoire in their MusicTORONTO concerts this season and next.




The ‘right type’ of folk music implies that, for the Hungarian composer, there must have also been a ‘wrong’ type. This would have been the showy gypsy music that stirred Liszt to write his Hungarian Rhapsodies and Brahms his Hungarian Dances.  The ‘wrong’ type also included songs that resembled simple folk songs but which were, in fact, made up by popular 19th century composers.

Bartók went in search of the real deal.  The older generation of rural villagers, he found, generally held the key to the purest folk song; young people tended to prefer popular song.  His colleague and fellow collector Zoltán Kodály was a frequent traveling companion, both of them carrying heavy phonographs initially borrowed from the Budapest Ethnographical Society.  “We went into the country and obtained first-hand knowledge of a music that opened up new ways to us,” Bartók said.  “Of course, there were occasions when we were received with suspicion,” Kodály admitted.  “It wasn’t so bad as long as went on foot, but when we needed a carriage to take all our equipment they smelt a rat, suspecting some kind of ‘business’.”

On the road - Bartók (black hat) and phonograph (second from right)

Recording women could present a problem, Kodály reported.  While the men would be glad to cooperate after a glass or two, the male villagers believed that their women-folk only sang when drunk.  But by making a social event out of the recording – sometimes playing back recordings to encourage a sense of occasion and greater participation from the villagers – Bartók found that a line-up soon formed next to his phonograph, sometimes even proudly dressed in national costume.

Collecting Slovak folk songs in 1907. Bartók (centre) coaxing a female singer in village of Zobordarazs, now Drazovce, Slovakia

Bartók’s earliest folk song gathering was done with noble, if, ultimately, restricting intentions: “I shall collect the most beautiful Hungarian folk songs and raise them to the level of art songs by providing them with the best possible piano accompaniments,” he told his sister in 1904.  Many of his folk songs did, indeed, end up as solo songs with piano accompaniment or as choruses.  They also provided the starting point for one of his most straight-ahead and popular compositions – the Six Romanian Folk Dances of 1915.  Take a listen to this imaginative concert recording from Budapest which reunites these by-now well-known melodies with their folk origins.

Still, folk song arranging was only the beginning for Bartók.  His goal lay both musically and geographically farther afield.  He traveled through Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria between 1907 and 1912.  As the First World War approached, he was in North Africa meeting and recording the Berbers.

Bartók (centre) also collected folk songs in Turkey in 1936.

After gathering an incredible 10,000 recordings, then meticulously transcribing and cataloguing them, Bartók was to write: “The composer does not make use of a real peasant melody, but invents his own imitation of such melodies.”  Folk song, in other words, was so much under his skin that it now became his musical language.  And this brings us back to the string quartets and two brief glimpses of how Bartók’s scholarly field work influenced his composition.

Folk music, specifically certain types of Hungarian folk music with its distinctive accent on the first beat, colours the cello theme at the beginning of the slow movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet.  [Click on arrow above for audio – no video].
Its rhapsodic, wonderfully evocative cello theme unfolds against static chords.
Its accents also mirror those of Hungarian speech.

There are many examples of this sort of distinctive melodic writing drawn from folk song and speech rhythm throughout Bartók’s music.
If you continue listening, the cello rhapsody gradually reveals another profound influence on Bartók’s music, the sounds of nature – insects, birds, animals – and the sounds of the night.

Bulgarian rhythms (click on arrow above for audio) drive the third movement of the Fifth String Quartet in a teasing rhythm -one-two-three-four
As the Tokyo Quartet works its way through all six Bartók quartets, we’ll hear how folk music was to drive composition of one of the greatest cycles of string quartets in the repertoire.  “In our case, it is peasant music which holds our roots,” Bartók said.


Tokyo Quartet – Haydn, Bartók Quartets 1 and 2.  Thursday March 15, 2012  – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto 
Posted by Keith Horner 

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Rufus Wainwright’s All days are nights: Songs for Lulu

February 11, 2012


“Depressing, lugubrious and down” is how Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus  Wainwright speaks of All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.  The 48-minute song-cycle,  written during the long and painful death of his mother Kate McGarrigle, divided fans.  When the pop star toured the piece, alone at his piano, dressed in a 17-foot-long, black feathered cape, many were surprised at his request to remain silent between songs.


“Thank you for playing along during the first set,” he said to his audience when the tour kicked-off  at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre 18 months ago.  “You were very Canadian and well-behaved.”

But there’s another side to Wainwright’s music waiting to be explored and Ottawa-born mezzo Wallis Giunta is eager to share it with MusicTORONTO concert-goers fortunate enough to have a ticket for her March 1 recital.  “There’s a lot of hope in the songs,” she says.  “I actually find the collection to be quite uplifting. . . There’s one song that’s called Sad With What I Have.  It’s probably the most outwardly depressed song.  But even there, there’s a happy ending.  In it he’s saying how his family is falling apart: I’ve lost my mother, my father’s really sick, my sister doesn’t talk to me.  Still, it’s about how he’s found his fiancée and is in love with him  – and that’s going to be how life is.”  In the words of the last line of the song: “Sad with what I have except for you.”

Giunta – now based in New York soaking up what the Met’s much sought-after Lindemann Young Artist Development Program has to offer and already touted by those in the know as a star in the making – comes by her interpretations with Wainwright’s blessing.  “The first time I sang a song for him, I did it just like his CD,” she tells me.  “I didn’t know what he wanted.  After a few bars, he stopped me and said ‘It’s beautiful, but I really want it to sound like what you do.’  So I completely changed my approach and sang it like a regular art song.  He wanted no scooping, no sliding, a solid rich vibrato, full tone, the expression I normally give to a song.”

(Miv Photography)

Does she wish to create intimacy of contact with an audience by hugging a microphone on stage and working closely with it, as Wainwright himself does?  “Not a bit.  The songs are not really written like that, although it may come over that way on the CD.  They are so well written.  The range is perfect for me.  I don’t feel I’m going to have any issues like that.  No.”

Is there a meeting ground between Wainwright’s cycle and the Schubert art songs that she sings?  “Schubert’s cycles often have a trajectory and story they tell.  This is a collection more than a cycle.  Taken together, the songs tell a story, but there’s no through line of content.  They’re really just 12 songs that he wrote at the time he was dealing with his mother’s death.  They’re all extremely different in sound, in tempo and in length and in language.  Some of them are Shakespeare sonnets, most are to his own texts.”

Giunta has already made Canadian popular song part of her repertoire  with her arrangement, with harp, of Gordon Lightfoot’s tender Affair on Eighth Avenue.  She also searched through songbooks by Jonie Mitchell and Rufus Wainwright for more songs that might translate to a solo recital. “Generally Rufus Wainwright’s songs are not structured like the usual pop song in the verse-chorus-verse-chorus thing,” she explains.  “They always have more of an art song structure.  I always have thought that his songs could be done in the classical concert hall.”


 CLICK HERE to listen to Zebulon, the closing song from the
Rufus Wainwright collection All days are nights: Songs for Lulu

Knowing of her interest in exploring new ground, a vocal coach (coincidentally working on a performance of Wainwright’s Songs for Lulu given by four young singers) gave her a copy of the as yet unpublished score.  Giunta was already familiar with the songs from the CD recording. Then, when she found herself sharing the stage with Wainwright at a COC fundraiser in Toronto this past July, she seized the opportunity on the return plane journey to New York to  ask his permission to perform the songs at her MusicTORONTO concert.  “He said he loved the idea and was excited that the solo recital premiere would be in Canada,” she says.  Wainwright also asked for Giunta’s help in preparing the score for publication.  “He wanted to make sure that all the markings in the score are what we singers need to get the sound he wants,” says Giunta.  “So we’re doing three songs at a time, working together to get all that sorted out.  In the meantime I get exactly what I need.”

(Barbara Stoneham Photography)




“I don’t feel that when I’m singing Rufus Wainwright that I’m channeling him or trying to imitate him.  I just take these songs that are beautiful and sing them the way I feel them.  And that’s what he’s asked for.”
Wallis Giunta





Wallis Giunta (mezzo) with Steven Philcox (piano)  – Wainwright, Britten, Bridge, Coward, Barber, Musto, Dove.  Thursday March 1, 2012  – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

Posted by Keith Horner

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Who’s afraid of Hugo Wolf?

January 05, 2012

hugo wolf

Hugo Filipp Jakob Wolf (1860-1903)

The late 19th century Austrian composer Hugo Wolf was born into a great musical tradition.  By temperament, though, he remained an outsider.  Song – German art song – was the weapon of choice with which he confronted the Viennese Establishment.  With it, Wolf brought the tradition of Schubert and Schumann to a level of intensity and heightened sensitivity to the text that relatively few could fully appreciate.  Wolf did little to woo his audience.  Irascible, impulsive, yet sensitive to a fault, with mood swings that bordered on the manic-depressive, the humbly-born composer from the provinces (Windischgraz, Styria, now Slovenia) did not hide his ambitions when he arrived as a student in Vienna.  His audience was the epicure, not the amateur, he declared. Seven years later, with one volume of song settings of the German romantic poet Eichendorff published, Wolf remained penniless.  A failed attempt at a conducting position in Salzburg was the closest Wolf came to holding down what his father viewed as a real job. Exasperated, Philipp Wolf decided that his son was “more out of tune than our piano.”

Wolf’s musical voice – ‘Wölferl’s own howl’ he called it – took a decade to come into focus.  Depression and dry periods followed inspired weeks when Wolf was intensely  absorbed with composition.  With the Mörike songs of 1888, one streaming from his pen after another, Wolf had a breakthrough year that can be likened to that of Schubert in 1814-15 and Schumann in 1840.  At a material level, by combining music teaching and accompanying with a knack for attracting benefactors and sponsors among Vienna’s educated elite (not to mention a lifelong mistress from the wife of one of them), Wolf gradually built a reputation with his short, highly polished lieder.  “What I now write, dear friend,” he wrote to his brother-in-law, “I write for posterity too. They are masterpieces.”

Diminutive in stature, standing a small volume of songs over five feet (154 cm), the 30 year-old Wolf became a cult figure to the next generation of music students. “Hugo Wolf belonged to us and we belonged to him,” the critic and composer Max Graf wrote in his memoirs.  “We stared at the pale man who stood in the standing-room section of the opera-house, just like ourselves, while Brahms sat in a box like God sitting on the clouds.”

". . . a leftover of old remains, not a living creature in the mainstream of the time."By 1879, Johannes Brahms was already Wolf's enemy after telling the ambitious young composer that he needed lessons in counterpoint.


From 1884-7, when he composed little, the 'wild Wolf' was the uncompromising music critic for the Wiener Salonblatt, a fashionable weekly. Like Shaw in London around the same time, Wolf's highly opinionated ideals and pungent writing remain a lively read

Melanie Kochert , wife of the jeweller to the Vienna court, remained Wolf’s lover throughout his adult life

Around this time, on the cusp of his maturity which was to result in the Mörike songbook, the Goethe Lieder, the Italian and Spanish Song Books, plus several attempts and one completed opera on the subject of the Three-cornered Hat (Der Corregidor), Wolf turned to purely instrumental music.  Unusually, he appeared to work without benefit of a text.  In May 1887, he wrote a short single-movement Serenade for string quartet in just three days.  Three years later he began to refer to it as his Italian Serenade, a title that stuck when he published an arrangement for small orchestra in 1892.  The piece, which the Lafayette Quartet bring to their MusicTORONTO recital later this month, starts cheerfully enough with the first violin giving the impression of still tuning –

 CLICK to play music clip

This would find an echo the following year in a song that Wolf wrote to words by Eichendorff with a similar title, Das Ständchen (The Serenade) –

CLICK to play music clip

The English musicologist Eric Sams (think of him as a musical detective) has traced further connections between the Eichendorff settings that Wolf was writing at the time.  But what intrigues me more is his suggestion that there’s also a literary source – a novella by Eichendorff – that gave the composer a skeleton on which to hang his serenade.  It’s a romantic work of ironic self-parody titled From the Life of a Good-For-Nothing in which its anti-hero, a violinist like Wolf himself, leaves home to find fame and fortune, again like Wolf himself.  The ironic edge to Eichendorff’s short story finds an echo in much of Wolf’s Serenade, which speaks with a voice that is forward-looking, of its time and never sentimental for the old days when serenades were said to be played beneath every maiden’s balcony.  It also explains two over-the-top moments when the cello appears to profess love in three increasingly florid declarations, only to be mocked by the other strings –

CLICK to play music clip

Wolf’s Italian Serenade, with its supple musical lines, chirpy grace notes, dancing triplets, trills and underlying humour, seems to invite musical pictures into the mind. At one point, Eichendorff’s hero discovers his heroine after a serenade in Italy in which the heroine sings to the accompaniment of guitar.  This seems to have a direct counterpart in Wolf –

CLICK to play music clip

Another of the serenade scenes in the Eichendorff novella includes a small orchestra, its instruments almost exactly mirroring those that Wolf was to include in his 1892 arrangement.  The extent and scope of the scenario that Wolf draws from the Eichendorff story, perhaps, explains why Wolf wished to add additional movements to his serenade.  He began several, even after insanity condemned the composer to an asylum in 1897.  None, however, was ever completed. So the single-movement Serenade is all that remains of a project that appears to have remained percolating in Hugo Wolf’s mind for a quarter of a century.

Lafayette Quartet – Wolf, Shostakovich, Brahms.  Thursday January 19, 2012  – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

“Conversations With Keith” featuring the Lafayette Quartet, Penderecki Quartet and New Zealand Quartets discussing Beethoven’s string quartets.  CLICK for Part One     CLICK for Part Two

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Golijov’s Quartet-in-progress

November 13, 2011

Osvaldo GolijovOsvaldo Golijov.
“The idea of a string quartet gives him nightmares, I think!
But most composers go through that with string quartets.” (Geoff Nuttall)

“They came on stage like hungry cannibals and I felt a strange sense of tranquility,” said Argentina-born composer Osvaldo Golijov when the SLSQ gave the première of his quartet Yiddishbbuk at Tanglewood in 1992. “For the first time in my life I was listening to what I had written being played as vividly as I heard it in my head.”

The cannibals did not consume the composer. They recorded the work he wrote for them, championed other Golijov works and received two Grammy nominations along the way.

Warming to the memory of the cannibals and paraphrasing American writer John Gardner, St. Lawrence violinist Geoff Nuttall likens playing a string quartet “to swimming in a tank full of sharks, where any false move you make may result in the loss of a limb. . . I like to approach the concert experience more like that, than playing at a drawing room cocktail party,” he says.

Nuttall’s exuberance and vitality on stage {he’s been known to fall off his chair] will be familiar to MusicTORONTO regulars over the past 16 seasons. Speaking from his California home November 11, 2011, Nuttall described the birthing pains of the brand new Golijov string quartet the SLSQ will be bring to Toronto next month – all the while waiting the arrival of his own Op. 2, a second son, with his wife, violinist Livia Sohn.

Nuttall. Costanza. St. John. Robertson  
Nuttall: “He’s incredibly inspiring.
It’s a great symbiotic relationship for the quartet.”

“I honestly think Osvaldo is one of the most gifted musicians on the planet; when he’s gone there’s nobody else like him,” Nuttall says of his close friend, whose wedding he played at this past summer. “He’s talked about writing another quartet for us for 15 years. And we’ve had the money in place for almost 10 years.” The première of the quartet, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts was scheduled for Carnegie Hall last spring. Golijov, an uncompromising perfectionist, failed to meet the deadline.

Golijov conducting

In 2010, the League of American Orchestras put Golijov at the top of their list of ‘the hottest composers in the world.’
An unprecedented 35 orchestras banded together to commission Golijov’s ‘Sidereus’.


“He needs to work through ideas and sketches,” says Nuttall. “He’s not a facile composer.

It has been tough for him the last four or five years.
It’s been a struggle and I thought we should try to help him.”

As Director for Chamber Music at Spoleto Festival USA, Nuttall planned a mini-Golijov festival with the composer in residence.

The festival came and went, with no new quartet, but much discussion of the proposed piece over a bottle or two of wine.

“Then he came to our annual Chamber Music Seminar at Stanford and brought some music! It was amazing. He brought a whole movement. We played it for the students in a workshop. It became the opening movement of the new quartet.”

Golijov composing

Golijov is currently at work on an opera, for the Met in 2014, with director Robert LePage.  
“It’s an exploration of the work of both Galileo and Stephen Hawking,” says Golijov.


The initial concept of the quartet was as a large-scale piece based on the Book of Ecclesiastes – the subtitle Kohelet (a Hebrew word referring to the speaker in the Ecclesiastes) is given in the MusicTORONTO program booklet.

Golijov then arrived for the scheduled Stanford première of the quartet with a second movement. “We worked eight hours on Saturday, the day before the concert, had a great dinner, partied a bit. When he woke up on Sunday, he said ‘I have some new ideas.’ So at the dress rehearsal, he’s changing things and adding ideas. You really get the sense that it is a fluid thing. He’s frustrated by the limitations of notation, basically. ‘It’s impossible to write down,’ he’ll say. But when he’s in the room, he has an amazingly powerful way of expressing it, through singing, gesture, evocative analogies, and so on. He’s a very powerful presence when you’re working on a piece,” Nuttall says.

The level of trust between composer and performers is palpable: a two-way creative relationship with a single goal in mind. “Our working relationship is unlike any other I’ve had with a composer in terms of the give and take, the communal respect and trust. I think he works that way pretty consistently with his other musicians,” says Nuttall, mentioning soprano Dawn Upshaw, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others.

Golijov Passion of St Mark curtain call

“A dark Jesus, not a pale European Jesus,”
Golijov says of his hugely popular  
La Pasión según San Marcos,  
based on Latin American folk and popular styles.

At the Stanford première of the quartet, Golijov spoke to the audience, describing the ‘mountain of rejected ideas’ on his piano. “The piece is far from finished,” he added. Musician and critic Beeri Moalem reported how Golijov also spoke about a unifying element in the two movements. Melodies by Schubert are slowed down and ‘stretched almost to the breaking point’ (in the composer’s words), flying high and detached, while the rest of the ensemble is busy with all sorts of activity. Golijov likened this, Moalem says, to riding a motorcycle: the mind floats in freedom, enjoying the ride (i.e. the soaring melody) even while the engine churns noisily and the tires bump up against the rocks and the dirt. Golijov also extends the analogy to Ecclesiastes where the speaker seeks to transcend the cycle of miserable grinding reality.

Nuttall is intrigued how Golijov can draw from minimalism in the opening movement, add his customary ‘grit and emotional stuff’ and still come out speaking with his own voice. He describes the second movement as ‘incredibly beautiful and almost Mahleresque’ in the way that the composer suspends a seamless slow violin line over shifting harmonies. Expressing satisfaction with the quartet as it now stands – two movements and 17 minutes – Nuttall says: “I’d be surprised, though, if we have the very final version.”

St. Lawrence Quartet (with Mark Fewer sitting in for Geoff Nuttall).    Beethoven/Golijov/Schubert.   Thursday December 1, 2011 – 8:00 pm.    Jane Mallett Theatre,  St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts,  27 Front Street East, Toronto
Posted by Keith Horner

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“He will soon be forgotten.”

November 06, 2011

Anton Arensky 1861-1906

Anton Arensky 1861-1906


“According to all testimony, his life had run a dissipated course between wine and card-playing. . . He will be soon forgotten.”
(Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – My Musical Life)

Never have your teacher write your obituary. Particularly when he gets it wrong . . .

Rimsky didn’t mention that Anton Arensky, his Russian student, wrote attractive music and was a skilled pianist.
He also omitted to mention that Arensky, remarkably for a 19th century musician, now has several recordings posted on YouTube.
They’re the real thing.
They may well colour the way you listen to his music.

The Gryphon Trio brings Arensky’s big, loveable, seriously romantic First Piano Trio to MusicTORONTO later this month.

So who was Anton Stepanovich Arensky?

His family in Novgorod were music-lovers and he was composing songs and piano music by the age of nine.  By 18, he was studying with Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatory.  “In his youth Arensky had not escaped entirely my own influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky,” sniffed Rimsky-Korsakov, piqued that Arensky’s interests did not follow those of the Russian nationalists up the bald mountain, into the steppes of Central Asia and into the bedroom of Scheherazade.

Arensky (centre) was barely older than his students when he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 21.

In 1895, he followed Balakirev as director of the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, retiring six years later aged 40 – with all the financial dexterity of a present-day politician – with a pension of 6,000 rubles a year.  On the surface, Arensky led a brilliant life as an accomplished composer, virtuoso pianist, gifted conductor, and distinguished teacher – with Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Glière as pupils.  But his early death at 45 from tuberculosis suggests a darker side.  From the beginning, Arensky was addicted to drinking and gambling.  When composing, he tended to burn the candle at both ends.  His father was a doctor, but little of his father’s medical expertise was passed on to the son.

Stravinsky, another Rimsky pupil and a generation younger than Arensky, spoke highly of his fellow Russian.  “Arensky was friendly, interested, and helpful to me,” he said.  “In spite of Rimsky, I always liked him and at least one of his works – the famous Piano Trio in D minor.  He meant something to me also by the mere fact of his being a direct personal link with Tchaikovsky.”

Portrait of Arensky in 1901, aged 40, five years before his death

Portrait of Arensky in 1901, aged 40, five years before his death


Arensky’s music, then, belongs in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and the mainstream European (Germanic) composers, rather than with the Russian Nationalists.

The St Lawrence played his wonderfully resonant string quartet at a Music TORONTO concert – the one with two cellos, with David Finckel – five years ago.  Just a week or two ago, John Terrauds from the Toronto Star was praising Arensky’s chamber music.  And I seem to remember Anagnoson and Kinton playing one of the two-piano Suites at a MT concert some years ago.

If we wish to dig a little deeper, we can also get an idea of exactly how Arensky himself performed this music.

Just three years ago, in 2008, after years of rumour and speculation, a rich archive of early wax cylinders began to be commercially released.

Dating from the 1890s, they are pretty much the earliest recorded classical music we have. The music was recorded on an Edison phonograph by the Russia-based businessman, Julius H. Block.

The archive of 200 wax cylinders (more are known to have been made) include three excerpts from the Arensky D minor Piano Trio, with the composer playing piano.  The recordings were made December 10, 1894, days after the premiere of the work.

How much can we hear of these 117 year-old recordings?  Well, they’re fragile.  “Not what you call pleasant to listen to,” in the words of audio-conservation engineer Ward Marston of  Marston Records.   But listen through the heavy surface noise and you’re inside a performance of considerable vitality, a world where the rubato is generous and the portamento (sliding on the strings) can make you reach for the Gravol.  It helps if you prime yourself with a couple of listenings to a modern recording of the Arensky piano trio before stepping into the time machine.  But what’s clear  from the first scratch is that you’re in the presence of a pianist of considerable skill and some beautifully crafted music that spans the emotional gamut from elegy to joy.

Arensky Piano Trio recording (excerpts) from 1894, performed by the composer (piano) with Jan Hrimaly (violin) and Anatoly Brandukov (cello).    First movement           Scherzo             Elegia

Gryphon Trio.  Beethoven/Staniland/Arensky.  Thursday November 17, 2011 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

Posted by Keith Horner

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“Le concert – c’est moi!” – “I am the public concert!”

October 26, 2011

Unsigned mid-19th century caricature of Liszt

Unsigned mid-19th century caricature of Liszt


So here’s the classical world’s first real superstar, caricatured in pen and ink by two mid 19th century artists.

The beanpole profile, dramatically raised hands and follically extravagant hairdo follow a trail blazed by the cadaverous, devilish Paganini.

Liszt’s sideways profile to the audience and the absence of music in front of him were his own doing.

Unlike other touring pianists who were quick to follow his lead, Liszt didn’t just play his own music. He championed music he felt should be better known – Schubert’s songs, which he skilfully transcribed for solo piano, for example.

The concept, indeed the very name, of the piano recital originated with Liszt.

Audiences, of course, worshiped at the shrine.

In the caricatures, they lie prostrate under the piano, dwarfed in front of the giant in front of them, insignificant among the strewn flowers and flying notes, their faces a mixture of awe and incredulity.

Women would fight over Liszt’s snuff box, his discarded gloves, the grounds from his coffee cup.

Another carried his cigar butt in her bosom.

Liszt in June 1845, signed by Al(fred) Bertrand

Liszt in June 1845, signed by Al(fred) Bertrand

Liszt’s fabulous technique derived from the fleet-fingered Czerny (he of the volumes of études, The School of Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity),from the showmanship and unprecedented technical excellence of Paganini, together with the poetry of a pianist-composer born just one year before himself – Fryderyck Chopin, whom he met in Paris.

Liszt had the good looks and quickly acquired the sophistication to move in fashionable Parisian salons – not to mention the city’s bedrooms – despite being born in provincial Hungary to a father who was eager to exploit the talents of his son.

By 1826, the 15 year-old Liszt had already published a collection of Études which, a quarter of a century later, were to form the basis of the Études d’exécution transcendante. These Transcendental Studies, as Schumann pointed out in a positive review, were of such complexity that probably the only pianist capable of playing them with true musical feeling was Liszt himself.

The quarter century gap between first draft and final, polished masterpiece is crucial to an understanding of Liszt.  Used to living life on the public stage, Liszt, naturally enough, viewed musical composition in a similar way. He saw no harm in publishing everything and he was teeming with ideas.  Ground-breaking masterpieces like the B minor Sonata – or the Funérailles and Dante Sonata in Ms. de la Salle’s recital – appear alongside first drafts, crowd-pleasing pièces d’occasion and potboilers.

Liszt at 30

Liszt at 30 in the midst of what still ranks as one of the longest concert tours ever undertaken – 8 years on the road,well over 1000 concerts. ‘Le concert, c’est moi!’ he could comfortably write in a letter.

Liszt only revised and refined his first drafts once he quit the concert platform.  He never gave a paid concert after the age of 35.  Based in Weimar, later in Rome where he took minor orders, he now began to produce some of his best music.

They”re still sorting out and publishing an authentic edition of Liszt’s 1300 piano works – and there are concertos, orchestral and choral works, songs, a handful of chamber works and some 7000 letters when these run out.
Certainly some of it is uneven.  (Would you expect otherwise in 7,266 minutes worth of piano music?).
But sorting out the wheat from the chaff is what makes Liszt so compelling a listen.  In art (as in his life) Liszt’s stylistic development was huge, progressing from the works of his virtuoso years to the visionary miniatures of his old age.
You can hear this span in MusicTORONTO`s next recital.
Liszt, who traveled throughout Europe by post-chaise rather than train or plane, now has both a train and Budapest's Ferenc Liszt Airport named after him

Liszt, who traveled throughout Europe by post-chaise rather than train or plane, now has both a train and Budapest's Ferenc Liszt Airport named after him

Lise de la Salle (piano). Ravel/Debussy/Liszt. Tuesday November 8, 2011 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
Posted by Keith Horner

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Third pressing string quartets?

September 26, 2011


Shostakovich, pen in hand

Shostakovich, pen in hand

“If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth,” a determined 30 year-old Shostakovich told a close friend in 1936.

Stalin and his cronies had just walked out of a performance of Shostakovich’s hugely popular opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Pravda, the official voice of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, printed its now infamous article headed “Chaos instead of Music.” Ahead lay a roller-coaster ride as an artist under some of the 20th century’s most oppressive leaders, Stalin and Brezhnev among them.

Shostakovich, of course, continued to compose and MusicTORONTO regulars will be familiar with many of his 15 string quartets. In fact, these days, Shostakovich is an essential part of the repertoire of most string quartets. When the Jerusalem Quartet brings Shostakovich to its much-anticipated MusicTORONTO début October 13, they’ll play him alongside Beethoven.

So how have the Shostakovich quartets won a place at the heart of the string quartet repertoire in the three decades since his death?

The huge span of Shostakovich’s music, over many of the most interesting decades of the last century – from innovative experimentation in a revolutionary young state to uncertain postmodernism in the late symphonies and quartets – may have drawn listeners to the composer.

A 25th anniversary (death) closely followed by a centenary (birth) offered irresistible marketing tools, and added to the momentum.

Then, those of us who were taught by our elders that Shostakovich belonged on the sidelines of musical history – as a foot soldier in the ranks with Hindemith rather than a forward-looking general like a Schoenberg or Stravinsky – had a lot of critical listening to do and received prejudices to shed.

Shostakovich still has his naysayers. Cold-pressed Pierre Boulez likens Shostakovich to a second, or even third, pressing of olive oil.

Boulez, conducting, holding olive oil bottles

"Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler."

There’s no explanation for Shostakovich’s continuing popularity in stirring up yesterday’s recipes or tomorrow’s failed culinary trends. Shostakovich confronts the contradictions of daily living in a modern world and we can hear this and identify with it in his music. More survivor than fighter, he reflects both alienation and a sense of belonging; pathos and covert satire. The emotional intensity we intuitively sense in his music clearly belongs within a long tradition of music-making – though Shostakovich inherited little by way of a Russian tradition of string quartet composition upon which to build. The intimate thoughts we sense in many of his quartets are reflected in the dedications he gave to most of them, including two to his wives, and four to members of the string quartet who gave the première of all but the first and the last of the cycle.

Shostakovich learned early on to be cryptic when it came to talking about his music. He left it to others to read such things as ‘optimistic tragedy’ rather than ideological pessimism into his scores. For the performer of his quartets Shostakovich offers few printed interpretative instructions – thereby encouraging freedom in their interpretation. For the listener, only gradually does an overall portrait of a complex human being begin to emerge as each quartet adds one more essential part to a 15-part whole.

Both Shostakovich and Beethoven were late starters when it came to string quartets. But there’s no ‘early period’ in Shostakovich’s quartet catalogue; his first quartet is his Op. 49. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich found solace in the quartet when debilitating illness and a growing isolation intruded on his physical well-being. The ratio of (private) quartets to (public) symphonies reversed with the Sixth quartet that will be played in the MusicTORONTO/JSQ program. There were 5 quartets and 10 symphonies before 1956; 10 quartets and 5 symphonies thereafter. (Shostakovich resisted the public/private characterisation, though, and his late symphonies represent a no less inward journey than the quartets).

The string quartets of both Shostakovich and Beethoven speak of a composer’s triumph over adversity. In both – though with altogether differing results – we can probe deep into the interplay of ideas which underlie the surface message of the music. And that’s a compelling enough reason to continue to draw even greater audiences to this rewarding music.

Jerusalem Quartet. Beethoven/Shostakovich/Brahms. Thursday, October 13, 2011 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

Also Lafayette Quartet. Wolf/Shostakovich/Brahms. Thursday January 12, 2012 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
Posted by Keith Horner

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