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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I am not suited to give concerts

August 15, 2011


 

“I am not suited to give concerts.  The crowd intimidates me.  I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralyzed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces.”

 

No, that’s not Glenn Herbert Gould speaking after he quit the concert platform in 1964.  It’s a 25 year-old Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, speaking to Franz Liszt about his concert phobia.  “You have the wherewithal to overpower it,” Chopin told Liszt, maybe somewhat enviously.

Chopin was widely regarded as one of the great pianists of his time.  His phobia did not force him to give up public concerts altogether.  He needed the cash. He played to a crowd of 1,200 in Manchester, England, one year before his early death.

But, all told, Chopin gave barely 50 concerts in his entire lifetime.  That’s a little over two a year on average, from his official debut in Warsaw in 1830 until a small handful of ill-fated concerts in Britain almost two decades later.

Chopin, the quiet revolutionary, preferred the intimacy of the salon – and the salons of Paris, in particular.  Here he could be a poet at the keyboard, renowned for his singing tone.  A musician first and a pianist second.

Only known photo of Chopin, taken in his final years

“I don’t think that he was a great composer,” Glenn Gould told CBC around 1960. Gould said the same thing to journalist Tim Page two decades later: “I played Op. 58 [Piano Sonata No. 3] when I was younger, just to see how it would feel. It didn’t feel very good.”

Hm. German pianist Markus Groh would not agree. He’s bringing a Chopin sandwich of waltzes and polonaises to feast upon when he plays for MusicTORONTO.

Markus Groh, piano. Schumann/Chopin/Brahms. Tuesday, September 20, 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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Debussy’s Second String Quartet?

July 22, 2011

It’s the masterpiece that Debussy titled First String Quartet that the Tokyo Quartet will bring to Jane Mallet Theatre, September 15 when they open Music TORONTO’s 40th anniversary season.

The Tokyo do not have a second quartet by Debussy in their repertoire. In fact, you won’t find a string quartet that does. But the French composer did promise to write a second quartet for his fellow-composer and sometime benefactor Ernest Chausson. “I’ll write another one which will be for you, in all seriousness for you,” Debussy wrote in February 1894, a few weeks after the première of the First.

“In all seriousness?”
Substitute the word ‘irony’ and you’ll get the picture.

Ernest Chausson - didn't like Debussy's quartet

Chausson hadn’t hidden his feelings about Debussy’s innovative, ground-breaking quartet from his friend. He was baffled by it, didn’t like it and told Debussy so in no uncertain terms.

 

The waspish Debussy was stung. So he promised to do things better next time around. As a parting shot to the slightly older, comfortably established composer he added, for good measure: “And I’ll try to bring some nobility to it.”

Irony again.

Debussy never wrote another letter to Chausson. He also broke a promise to dedicate the First Quartet to Chausson when it was published.

As for the title of the quartet that Debussy published – First String Quartet, in G minor, Op. 10 – irony again.

Debussy never gave any other composition an opus number and never specified a key elsewhere. He gave his music some of the most poetic titles in the business. (Already on the drawing board was the beautiful Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune). What Debussy is doing with that utilitarian title to the string quartet is sending up the traditional way composers title string quartets.

Perhaps he could have added the year of composition (1893) at the end of that title. Voilà! A title formal enough to be catalogued in the library of even the stuffiest institution in town. The Paris Conservatoire, perhaps? Debussy had recently spent more than a decade there, questioning the rules, infuriating his teachers.

Claude Debussy

Debussy’s quartet – his only quartet – is anything but formal. It’s a work of transcendent beauty and infinite subtlety of timbre, thematic variation and harmony, as you’ll hear when the Tokyo return to Music TORONTO.


Tokyo Quartet with Markus Groh. Debussy/Ryan/Brahms. Thursday, September 15, 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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