By Colin Kaye
April 14, 2018 - April 20, 2018
in 1950. (Deutsche Fotothek)
When I was a student cellist, I used to
play in a string quartet. A violinist I knew had a large if somewhat drab
lounge, big enough for a string quartet to play without any collisions.
Every week or so, I used to drive over there in my ancient car, the roof of
which leaked so badly that I used to leave umbrellas on the back seat. One
of us would bring along a set of parts and we’d scramble through the music.
We got to know a lot of quartet music but we were playing just for the fun
of it, without any professional aspirations.
There are hundreds of professional
string quartets worldwide. Wikipedia lists over four hundred of them and
some have achieved legendary status. The Borodin Quartet was formed in 1945
and it’s still going strong and one of the world’s longest-lasting string
quartets. In Britain there were the three A’s: the incredible Amadeus
Quartet, the Aeolian Quartet and the Allegri Quartet which was founded
in1953 and became Britain’s longest-running chamber music ensemble.
In America the Kronos Quartet has been
going for over forty years and specializes in contemporary music. The
Guarneri Quartet was a top American quartet founded in 1964 and admired for
its rich, warm, tone and dramatic interpretations. The Guarneri musicians
helped nurture interest in quartet playing for a new generation of young
musicians. Four of those young musicians now form the Dover Quartet which
rocketed to stardom following its success at the 2013 Banff International
String Quartet Competition.
Based at the Bienen School of Music at
Chicago’s Northwestern University, the Dover Quartet has become one of the
most in-demand ensembles in the world. Jerry Dubins of Fanfare
magazine wrote “This is music-making not of the highest order but of the
next order. On a number of occasions, I’ve remarked on how blessed we are
to be living in a golden age of string playing. The Dover Quartet now takes
that to the next level, platinum.”
Beethoven (1770-1827): Quartet in E minor Op. 59 No. 2.
Quartet (Duration: 38:31; Video: 1080p HD)
Published in 1808, this work is the
second of the so-called Razumovsky cycle of string quartets. They
belong to what’s known as Beethoven’s “middle period” when he was developing
a more complex musical style. He was moving towards more organic growth in
his music, pushing ahead with more advanced harmonies and using dramatic
moments of silence. You can hear what I mean in the first movement of this
strangely enigmatic quartet. But listen to the incredible “togetherness” of
the Dover Quartet, especially in the busy section at 05:53 onwards: there’s
constant eye contact between the musicians and extraordinary precision.
According to Beethoven’s younger friend
Carl Czerny, the second movement came to Beethoven after contemplating the
night sky. The movement opens with luminous harmonies like a celestial
hymn, but moves into more turbulent moods and shifting chromatic harmonies.
Yet often there’s a sense of continuous pulsing throughout the music like
the passing of time itself.
With their rich and singing tone
quality, the Dover Quartet brings out the soulfulness in this remarkable
work. The joyous third movement has the feel of a folk dance with
cross-rhythms and catchy syncopation, while the opening of the last movement
could almost have been written by Prokofiev with its playful and slightly
sardonic main theme. It’s a virtuosic performance which brings a veritable
eruption of applause from the audience. You might notice that this video
has already has over 62,000 views. Who is saying that there is no audience
for classical music?
Shostakovich (1906-1975): String Quartet No 3 in F Major Op 73.
Quartet (Duration: 33:17; Video: 1080p HD)
This five-movement quartet dates from
1946 and was premiered in Moscow by the Beethoven Quartet to whom it is
dedicated. Many people regard this work as being among the best of the
Shostakovich quartets and it was evidently a favorite of the composer
himself. He had already written nine symphonies and this quartet shows the
composer in full command of chamber music. It switches between moments of
consonant harmony and biting distance, yet it’s approachable and absorbing.
But like the Beethoven quartet, this work has many enigmatic, puzzling
The Dover Quartet gives a
characteristically tight and focused performance with splendid technical
control. Just listen to the incredible precision in the sprightly third
movement and the remarkably rich tone colour in the soulful and sombre
fourth movement. The closing bars, in which fragments of melody are heard
over a hushed, sustained chord of F major are memorable. By any standards
this is superb playing.
And just in case you’re wondering, the
Dover Quartet takes its name indirectly from the port of the same name on
England’s Kent coast, albeit in a rather circuitous sort of way.
April 7, 2018 - April 13, 2018
On the Road in New England
The first time I visited New England it
was back in the seventies and I’d decided to rent a car in Boston. I had
specifically requested a small one, though I can’t remember why. The rental
place was in a cavernous gloomy basement off Copley Square. Having signed a
couple of forms, the office person gestured vaguely in the direction of a
fleet of cars lined up in rows. I searched in vain for a small one. An
assistant finally emerged from the office and led me to an enormous dark
green thing which turned out to be a Mercury Cougar. Eventually, I
hesitatingly drove out into the streets of Boston, but after years of
driving a tiny car in Britain, I felt as though I was navigating an aircraft
I eventually fell in love with the
green car; the light-as-a-feather power steering, the smooth automatic
transmission and a suspension system that made it feel you were riding on a
blancmange. The real thrill came when I drove out on the interstate across
Massachusetts. I switched on the radio, poked a tuning button and out came
the sounds of bluegrass music. This normally doesn’t do much for me but on
that occasion, sweeping along the Massachusetts Turnpike at a stately 55
mph, the country music was strangely appropriate. It felt just right.
At the time, it hadn’t dawned on me
that New England was the home of American “classical” music. William
Billings was regarded as the first American choral composer. He lived in
Boston and was described as “a singular man of moderate size, short of one
leg, with one eye…and with an uncommon negligence of person.” One of his
less scruffy contemporaries rejoiced in the name of Supply Belcher and was
one of a group of mostly self-taught composers who wrote music for amateur
The first American composer to write
for symphony orchestra was the mildly eccentric Anthony Philip Heinrich. He
gave his compositions rambling titles such as The Dawning of Music in
Kentucky, or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature. One
critic referred to him as “the Beethoven of America.” As the nineteenth
century marched onward, a new breed of composers began to emerge who had
studied in Europe but returned home to compose, perform and acquire
students. Among them were George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, and
(1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor.
Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov (Duration:
38:39; Video: 720p HD)
Considered the grandfather of American
music, Charles Ives was another New Englander born in Danbury, Connecticut.
As a child he played drums in his father’s marching band and must have
tramped down many a road in his home town.
In 1894 he entered Yale University to
study with Horatio Parker. He became a leading student and later in life
was among the first composers to engage in daring musical experiments which
included polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters and elements of chance.
All this proved too much of a challenge for most people and his music was
generally ignored, partly because of the relentless dissonance. It was Ives
who famously said, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”
This attractive symphony is the first
of four and was composed between 1898 and 1902. If you’ve heard his later
works this might come as a surprise because it’s written in a late romantic
European style. The second movement is exceptionally beautiful and moving,
evoking an atmosphere similar to the slow movement of the New World
Symphony. The scherzo is delightful with a tuneful dance-like trio
section, while the last movement is a real tour-de-force with
thrilling brass writing, bringing the work to a joyful and triumphant
(b. 1947): Short Ride in a Fast Machine. BBC Symphony Orchestra,
cond. Marin Alsop (Duration: 04:40; Video: 480p)
Adams was also born in New England. In
Worcester, Massachusetts to be precise. According to the composer, the
piece was inspired by an early morning ride in a sports car that he took
with his brother-in-law. One can only assume that they ignored the speed
limit. This is one of his most approachable works and dates from 1986.
Adams said that the piece has the “idea of excitement and thrill and just on
the edge of anxiety or terror”.
This exhilarating piece is an iconic
example of his so-called post-minimal style, which uses the characteristic
techniques of repetition, a steady beat, the repetition of short musical
ideas and perhaps most importantly, a tonality that relies on consonant
harmony. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a joyfully exuberant piece
and brilliantly scored for a large orchestra, conducted in this video by
Marin Alsop, one of today’s most successful female conductors.
March 31, 2018 - April 6, 2018
Top of their class
J. S. Bach
(Elias Gottlob Haussmann)
Browsing through my
list of musicians’ birthdays recently, I was reminded that 30th March
is the birthday of two of the most influential European composers who ever
lived. They both wrote a huge amount of music and had an impact on almost
every other composer who followed them. I refer to Franz Joseph Haydn,
whose name is synonymous with the Classical period and Johann Sebastian
Bach, whose name is irrevocably linked with the Baroque. Even today, every
serious student of composition studies their music assiduously – especially
that of Bach.
The complete Bach
catalogue was not published until 1950 and known by its German name,
Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis which is why the letters BWV are always added after
the title of a Bach work. The catalogue lists over 1,100 titles but it’s
likely that he wrote many more which have since been lost. During his
lifetime, Bach was known primarily as a virtuoso organist and part of his
job was to write the music for church services of all kinds. His fame as a
composer didn’t really emerge until the so-called Bach Revival in the
nineteenth century. In some ways, his style of writing was typical of the
late Baroque but like other individuals who are considered “great” he pushed
the boundaries as did no one before him. He had the gift for writing
tightly woven textures of rich and complex counterpoint and developed
tonality as no one else had done.
Bach’s achievement is
staggering by any standards, astonishing in its size and yet replete with
masterpieces that stand out like towering peaks in the repertoire. The
monumental St. Matthew Passion springs to mind. It’s a massive
two-and-a-half hour oratorio recounting the Passion of Jesus as told by
Matthew. In contrast, The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two
books, which include a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key,
displaying an amazing variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques. Taking
into account well over a thousand works which would take a lifetime to know,
it’s impossible to find a representative work which symbolizes Bach’s entire
output. Instead, I shall indulge myself and tell you about a set of works
which have been close to my heart since my teenage years.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat
major, BWV 1051.
Mozart Orchestra. (Duration: 16.19; Video: 480p)
Concertos are a collection of six instrumental suites which the composer
presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721 along
with a suitably groveling dedication. They were not especially composed for
the Margrave (although Bach may well have wanted to create that impression)
but were apparently taken from other works that he’d written over the
The sixth concerto is
one of my favourites and it’s unusual in that the scoring doesn’t include
violins. Instead Bach writes for two violas, cello, double bass,
harpsichord and two rather old fashioned instruments known as the viola da
gamba. Why Bach chose this unusual combination of instruments is unknown,
though plenty of theories abound. The work is a testament to the composer’s
incredible contrapuntal technique – the skill of weaving melodies together
into a seamless texture. For example, in the bubbling foot-tapping first
movement listen to how one viola thematically chases the other a second or
two later. In the second movement the gambas don’t play (again another
mystery) and the third movement is a jig-like dance. In this movement too,
Bach writes complex passages in which the melody is constantly swapped
between the solo violas using catchy syncopation which gives the music an
incredibly lively rhythm.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.104 (London).
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Mariss Jansons (Duration: 27:19;
No one knows exactly
how many symphonies Haydn wrote, probably not even Haydn himself. The
number is usually given as 104 or 106 depending on the source but there are
likely to be others. I could have chosen any of them as a birthday
celebration but Number 104 is special for me because it is the first one I
ever played when I was a teenage cellist back in the Old Country.
It’s also the
composer’s last symphony and part of a set of twelve intended for
performance in London. This four-movement work was written in 1795 while
Haydn was living there, and premiered the same year to an enthusiastic
Haydn was fond of
opening his symphonies with a slow introduction and this is a grand opening
to say the least. He has fun in the third movement in which he puts
stresses in the minuet in unexpected places. The finale is dominated by an
exuberant folksy melody which is sometimes supported by a bagpipe-like drone
accompaniment. The work is a lively introduction to Haydn’s mature musical
style and a wonderful example of a late classical symphony.