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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update January 30, 2016

Squeeze me

Composer Viatcheslav Semionov.

What’s the difference between a macaw and an accordion?  The answer is that one is loud, obnoxious and noisy; the other is a bird.  The instrument has been the butt of musical jokes for years, but I once bought a piano accordion under the mistaken impression that it would be easy to play.  The keyboard looks friendly enough, but there are dozens of buttons which are difficult to navigate, especially when they’re out of sight.  It’s an incredibly heavy contraption too and practising requires something of a physical effort.

The other problem is that the accordion is rather loud, which is why it’s so popular in dance music.  Sadly, it was not popular with my neighbours, who were clearly not connoisseurs of accordion music, at least not of the variety that I was producing.  There were so many complaints that my potential as an international accordion star was never realised.  In any case, I never really got the hang of working the bellows.

After its invention in 1829, the accordion became enormously popular partly because of the contemporary craze for the polka.  The instrument travelled with migrating Europeans to many parts of the world.  It was ideal for folksongs and dance music not only because of its volume, but also because the so-called “Stradella bass system” enabled the player to produce bass notes and simple pre-set chords with the left hand buttons.  Ironically, this was one of the reasons that the accordion was slow to be accepted into “serious” music.  The breakthrough didn’t occur until the emergence of the “free-bass accordion” which instead of simple chords could play a wide range of individual notes on the left-hand manual.

Even so, acceptance was slow in classical music and the instrument was often used simply to provide local colour.  The first composer to write for the chromatic accordion was Paul Hindemith in his delightfully frivolous and anarchic work entitled Kammermusik No. 1.  The accordion was occasionally used in works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Kurt Weill and George Antheil.

Accordions are part of a large family of musical instruments known technically as free-reed aerophones and include mouth organs, the Chinese sheng and the Thai khaen.  The melodeon and the concertina are virtually simpler versions of the accordion with a set of buttons at each end of the instrument and they’re used in many countries for traditional folk music.  The bandoneon, popular in Argentina, Uruguay and Lithuania is a rather more complex concertina.  The accordion was popular in Russia during the nineteenth century and it’s been estimated that by the 1870s they were producing over 700,000 instruments a year.  One wonders what happened to them all.

Nikolai Chaikin (1915-2000): Concerto No. 1 in Bb Major for accordion and orchestra.  Nick Ariondo (acc), Olympia Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Fung Ho. (Duration 09:55; Video 480p)

The bayan is a chromatic button accordion developed in Russia in the early twentieth century where it achieved widespread popularity.  Composer Nikolai Chaikin was one of the most famous bayan composers of the former USSR and as a child, began his musical studies on the instrument. 

This accordion concerto sounds pretty much how you would expect a Russian accordion concerto to sound.  It’s a delightful work which falls easily on the ear and was originally composed for the bayan.  It’s in a romantic late nineteenth century style, looking back to the music of Balakirev and Borodin.  With a wealth of colourful melodies it’s a virtuosic work too because the composer was one of the finest performers of his day.

Nikolai Chaikin was also a well known accordion teacher and a Professor at the Gorky Conservatory and the prestigious Gnessin Academy of Music.  More significantly, he was one of the first composers in Russia and Europe who introduced the accordion to the musical world as a professional concert instrument.

Viatcheslav Semionov (b. 1946): Frescoes - Concerto for accordion and orchestra. Aliaksandr Yasinski (acc), Talich Philharmonia Prague cond. Lukáš Kovaøík (Duration: 28:33; Video: 1080p HD)

Viacheslav Semionov was born in 1946 in the city of Trubchevsk which lies about two hundred miles south of Moscow.  Like Nikolai Chaikin, he began playing the bayan at an early age and showed exceptional talent at the instrument.  He studied at the Gnessin Academy of Music and has since given performances in more than thirty countries.

This concerto inhabits a completely different sound-world to that of Chaikin and explores themes on the spiritual development of humanity.  “His major works are saturated with emotional heat”, wrote one critic, “reflecting the philosophy of the struggle between good and evil.”  There’s some wonderful writing in this concerto, but give it a chance to get going.  The brilliant closing section is triumphant and joyous, and the superb soloist Aliaksandr Yasinski clearly loves the work.  If accordion music is not usually your cup of vodka, give this splendid concerto a try. 

Update January 23, 2016

Catch a what?

The Big Three in 1940: (left-right) Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.

Many years ago, when I got a position playing cello in our district orchestra I found myself sitting next to another boy of about my age who was clearly from foreign parts.  It turned out that his name was Paul, he played the cello and he came from Armenia.  At the time I hadn’t a clue where Armenia was and was too polite to ask.  I probably didn’t want to appear an idiot, either.  I had some vague idea that it might be somewhere between North Africa and the Middle East but I must have been getting mixed up with somewhere else because it turned out that Armenia is nowhere near Africa.  And in case you’re wondering, Armenia is actually a bit to the north-east of Turkey.

I mention all this by way of a cheery introduction because this week’s column is about the most renowned Armenian composer of the twentieth century who was also the composer of the first Armenian ballet, symphony, concerto, and film score.  His name is Aram Khachaturian (katch-uh-TOOR-ee-uhn) and his compositions have been performed in almost every country of the world. 

If you ever saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve heard the music of Khachaturian.  If you ever watched the 1970s television series The Onedin Line, you’ve heard the music of Khachaturian.  In fact, it would be very surprising if you had never heard any of his music.  When I was a schoolboy, his Sabre Dance was tremendously popular and known to almost everyone.  Even our dog knew it.  He knew it so well that he could even dance to it. 

Aram Khachaturian: Sabre Dance.  Berlin Philharmonic cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration: 02:35; Video: 1080p HD)

Dating from 1942, this is Khachaturian’s best known and most recognizable piece with a distinctive middle section based on an Armenian folk song.  It comes from his four-act ballet entitled Gayaneh and is set on a Georgian farm collective.  By 1948 Sabre Dance had become an unlikely jukebox hit in the United States.

It was one of the most popular pieces of the twentieth century and been used in countless television programmes and at least two dozen movies.  Despite the outrageous popularity of Sabre Dance, Khachaturian was officially denounced in 1948 as a “formalist” and his music dubbed “anti-people” by the monolithic Central Committee of the Communist Party, but so were other composers including Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  However, the disapproval was short-lived and for most of his career, Khachaturian held several high posts in the Union of Soviet Composers.  In Armenia today, Khachaturian is considered a “national treasure”.

Aram Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Haik Kazazyan (vln), Moscow State Symphony Orchestra cond. Pavel Kogan (Duration: 36:19; Video: 480p)

This work dates from 1940 and was dedicated to the Russian violinist David Oistrakh, who gave the first performance in Moscow.  Oistrakh acted as adviser to Khachaturian on the writing of the solo part which is probably why the music seems to fit the instrument so well.  It has since become a standard work in the violin repertoire.

After a brief orchestral introduction, the soloist launches into a scampering theme that sounds like Shostakovich but throughout the concerto, you’ll notice the Eastern European influence in the themes that follow.  There’s some brilliant virtuosic writing which makes this concerto something of a challenge even for the most accomplished professionals.

The reflective, moody second movement also has elements of Eastern European music and contains some beautifully expressive violin writing, while the third and final movement opens with a lively orchestral fanfare and at times has the flavour of an Armenian country dance.  Throughout the work you’ll hear the composer’s personal and distinctive musical voice.

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978): Masquerade Suite. Japan Sinfonia cond. Hisayoshi Inoue (Duration: 21:04; Video 480p)

And so to lighter fayre.  In 1941 Aram Khachaturian was asked to write the incidental music for a production of the play Masquerade by the famous Russian poet, painter and playwright Mikhail Lermontov.  The plot involves a grand masquerade ball, an expensive bracelet and a poisoned ice-cream but you don’t need to know the intricate details to enjoy the music.  It was first performed in Moscow the same year but in 1944 the composer converted some of the incidental music into this well-known five-movement suite for orchestra.

The opening movement, a swirling, hypnotic Russian waltz in the minor key is central to the work but although its composition evidently gave Khachaturian some difficulty it has become well-known in its own right and you’ll probably recognise the distinctive waltz melody.  It’s followed by a brooding Nocturne, a lilting Mazurka, a magical fairy-tale Romance and finally a rousing Galop that could have made a good soundtrack for a Keystone Cops movie.

Update January 16, 2016

Hoofing around

Claude Debussy in 1908.

Words and music have always had a close association.  I suppose songs are the most obvious example and further back in musical history the chants of the early medieval church.  They could have been spoken of course and doubtless were, but singing the words made them not only easier to memorise but a good deal more pleasurable and fulfilling to perform.  Generations later, during the European romantic era, it became fashionable to use poems not merely as a text for setting but as a starting point for an independent composition.

The two works this week have their origins in poetry.  In many ways, they are opposites because whereas one of them looks forward into the twentieth century, the other looks backward to a bygone age. 

Debussy took a poem by the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé about a faun and the English 20th century composer John Tavener took a poem about a lamb by the great Romantic artist William Blake.  Debussy’s work is a broad, rhapsodic orchestral piece of incredible complexity while Tavener’s choral piece is remarkable in its simplicity.

The faun is a half-human, half-goat with its upper section being human apart from a pair of small goat horns on its head.  The origins date back to Greek mythology but the Romans kept the faun tradition alive and believed that they lived in wild, remote places.  They would evidently help or hinder humans depending on their frame of mind.  Mallarmé’s famous 1876 poem describes the sensual experiences of a faun who has just woken up from his afternoon sleep.  The poem came to the attention of Debussy who in 1894 crafted his extraordinary orchestral work. 

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Orchestra Dell’accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia cond. Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 11:59, Video: 480p)

Although this composition was years ahead of its time, the opening flute solo must be one of the most famous passages in the orchestral repertoire.  Pierre Boulez has said he considered the score to mark the beginning of modern music.  It was one of the most significant musical works of its day, consisting of a complex organization of musical cells and motifs.  It’s not actually descriptive in the usual sense of the word but it uses rich whole-tone harmonies, daring orchestration and to contemporary audiences must have sounded very modern indeed.

Leonard Bernstein wrote that the work “stretched the limits of tonality” and in so doing, set the harmonic stage for the atonal music of the century to come.

Originally Mallarmé was not at all happy with his poem being used as the basis for music, because he believed poetry should stand alone.  He felt “it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.”  It’s unlikely that Mallarmé could have possibly imagined what Debussy was going to write but eventually the poet was enchanted by Debussy’s composition, and congratulated the composer most warmly on his achievement saying that the music “presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness.”

In this recording, Bernstein conducts the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of the best-known orchestras in Italy.

John Tavener (1944-2013): The Lamb. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.  (Duration: 03:05; Video: 480p)

Confusingly, there are two English composers with almost identical names.  The first John Taverner had two r’s in his surname (but not always) and lived from 1490 until 1545.  The twentieth century John Tavener has claimed to be his direct descendent.  He came to public attention with his cantata The Whale, first performed in 1968 and he’s become one of the most popular composers of his generation with a huge output of religious music.  He’s perhaps best-known for a haunting work for cello and orchestra The Protecting Veil, and for the Song for Athene which was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana.

The Lamb is a setting of a short poem by William Blake and gives us a glimpse into Tavener’s highly personal sound-world.  It’s written for unaccompanied four-part choir and is deceptively simple, yet the moving vocal parts produce unexpected dissonances that seem to evoke the music of Eastern Europe.

“I wrote The Lamb in 1982,” the composer once said, “while being driven by my mother from South Devon to London.  It came to me fully grown so to speak, so all I had to do was to write it down.”

Dedicated to his nephew’s third birthday, the piece is often performed as a Christmas carol but like so much of Tavener’s music, it has a compelling sense of timelessness.  This piece has been recorded on nearly forty CDs and has become a classic in its own time.

Update January 9, 2016

One hit wonders

Johann Pachelbel.

The other day I was reminded about the old joke about a Yorkshire band-master who asks one of the young brass players, “Aye lad, do you play The Trumpet Voluntary?” “No, replies the boy, “My dad makes me.”

The Trumpet Voluntary dates from around 1700 and is more correctly known as the Prince of Denmark’s March.  For years it was attributed to Henry Purcell but research in the 1940s revealed that it was written by Jeremiah Clarke, one of the few composers who ended his life by suicide.  Although Clarke wrote many choral works, today he’s known only for this single piece. 

The grandly-named Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov is known today for a movement entitled Procession of the Sardar from his orchestral suites Caucasian Sketches.  And do you know?  There are dozens of other composers who are remembered by the general public for just one piece of music.

Luigi Boccherini was a prolific composer who is remembered largely for the so-called Boccherini Minuet.  You’d assume from this title that he wrote only minuet but he actually composed hundreds of them, along with countless other works.  Jules Massenet wrote over thirty operas as well as oratorios, ballets and orchestral works yet he’s known to the general public for one piece, the Meditation from his opera Thaïs (TAH-ees).  Then there’s Johann Pachelbel.  He lived during Germany’s middle baroque and specialised in organ music.  He wrote choral music too, but it’s the organ works for which he’s best remembered, with over two hundred works for the instrument.

Pachelbel was one of the most successful composers of his time, yet today he’s generally known for one short piece.  Baroque music fell out of fashion during the eighteenth century and by modern times Pachelbel’s music had become largely a historical curiosity.  Then along came the French music historian and conductor Jean-François Paillard who established his own chamber orchestra with the intention of recording baroque works for the French Erato label.  His 1968 recording of Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue for three violins unexpectedly rocketed the piece from centuries of obscurity to international recognition.

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706): Canon in D (original version). Voices of Music (Duration: 04:30; Video 1080p HD)

While many of his organ works have been preserved, little of Pachelbel’s chamber music has survived the centuries.  The circumstances surrounding the composing of this piece are unknown but it probably dates from the 1690s.  One historian has suggested that it might have been composed for Johann Christoph Bach’s wedding.  Even today in both Europe and America, it’s a popular choice for weddings – and funerals.  But why?  Perhaps people are attracted to the plodding bass line or perhaps the satisfying repeated chord progression which has since been borrowed by many lesser composers.  Or perhaps it is fascinating build-up of sounds in the canon itself.  And in case you’re wondering, a canon is a piece based entirely on the counterpoint created by melodies weaving around each other.  The simplest form of canon is a round like Frère Jacques in which voices enter at different moments with the same melody. 

During the renaissance and baroque, composers found canons fascinating because the original melody could be modified and elaborated in countless different ways.  This is exactly what Pachelbel did.  In this video, the music is played on original instruments and includes a theorbo, a plucked instrument of the lute family.  It’s pretty much how the composer might have heard it. 

Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751): Adagio in G minor. Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 08:38; Video: 480p)

While Albinoni is mainly remembered today for his instrumental music and especially for his concertos, in his day he was known as an opera composer.  Strangely enough, few of his operas were ever published with the result that the scores have been lost.  Fortunately, nine collections of instrumental works were eventually published and must have been successful because they were often reprinted.  Albinoni was evidently the first Italian composer to write concertos for the oboe and he was favourably compared to Corelli and Vivaldi.

Like the Pachelbel work, there’s a fascinating twentieth century connection.  Remo Giazotto was an Italian musicologist and composer, best known for his catalogue and biography of the works of Albinoni.  In 1958 he published a composition crisply entitled Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni.  Originally he claimed that he’d reconstructed the piece from a hand-written fragment by Albinoni but later changed his story, and announced that it was his own original composition.  Perhaps royalties had something to do with it.  However, after Giazotto’s death in 1998, evidence came to light that he probably used a tiny fragment by Albinoni, although most of the work was almost certainly composed by Giazotto himself.  It’s all a bit puzzling, so it’s probably better just to sit back and enjoy the music.

Update January 1, 2016

Licorice sticks

Late 18th century
five-key clarinets.

“To what?” I suppose you could justifiably enquire.  The expression is old jazz slang for a clarinet because of course, clarinets are usually black.  I’ve sometimes heard classical players use the term but only when they’re joking, drunk or both. 

When I was a student at London’s Royal College of Music, I used to share a flat with a clarinetist.  Unlike me, he was an extremely diligent student and practised his clarinet for hours every day.  When he wasn’t practising he was sorting out reeds with which he seemed obsessed.  He used to buy them in Paris, returning with several boxes which would then be carefully sorted and graded.  Then it was more practising.  The upshot was that I became acquainted with much of the clarinet repertoire while still fairly young.  And there’s plenty of it, I can tell you.

Although the clarinet has a permanent place in the modern orchestra, it wasn’t always thus.  And it wasn’t black, either.  The instrument first appeared during the early years of the eighteenth century and it was a clever development of a simple reed instrument called the chalumeau (SHALL-oo-moh).  The word is still used today to describe the low register of the clarinet.  It looked a bit like a tenor recorder with a few metal keys stuck here and there.  By the late eighteenth century more keys and levers had been added and the instrument had become tremendously popular with composers.  Usually made of boxwood, these early clarinets were light brown and didn’t acquire the licorice colour (and the complex mechanism) until many years later.

The “standard” clarinet is actually part of a much larger family of clarinets some of which are so rare as to never be seen.  Some early models have simply faded away and exist only in museums.  Nowadays, you can sometimes spot the small E flat clarinet and the bass clarinet in orchestras.  The enormous contrabass clarinet rarely makes an appearance.  It’s an odd-looking thing and some designs hardly look like a musical instrument at all. 

Johann Stamitz (1717-1757): Clarinet Concerto in B flat Major. Jaehee Choi (clt), NFA Project Orchestra cond. Charles Neidich (Duration: 16:55; Video: 720p HD)

Johann Stamitz was one of the most prolific and important composers of the mid-eighteenth century.  He wrote nearly sixty symphonies and invented, if that’s the right word, the four-movement symphony which remained a standard format for years to come.  In the early 1740s he was appointed as Musical Director to the Elector Palatine whose court was at Mannheim.  Stamitz was in charge of the court orchestra to which he made significant improvements.  He developed various orchestral techniques (including the rapid ascending figure known as the Mannheim Rocket) and brought the well-disciplined orchestra considerable fame.  It was once described by Dr Charles Burney as “an army of generals”.  Years later, Mozart heard this orchestra and was especially impressed by the clarinets.

It was once thought that this work of 1755 was the first clarinet concerto ever.  However, six clarinet concertos by Johann Molter were subsequently discovered, the first of which dates from about 1743.  There are also three works for clarinet and oboe by Vivaldi which could possibly date back to 1711.  No one knows for sure. 

The Stamitz concerto is played here on a modern instrument and it’s typical of the court music of the period, exhibiting the much-valued classical ideals of dignity, form and elegant melodies; qualities from which Mozart would later take inspiration.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra. Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video 720p HD)

The first movement must be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written.  Few composers have the gift of writing music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of them.  You can almost sense visions of vast prairies and distant hills in a landscape bathed under radiant sunshine. 

Copland started the work in 1947 and scored it for strings, piano and harp.  It was commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars for the work, a considerable sum in those days.  There are just two movements, linked by a cadenza – a standard part of most concertos and usually intended to display the soloist’s technical skills.  The first movement is slow and expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s “bitter-sweet lyricism”.  The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American and jazz themes that dominate the lively second movement.

This is one of the best recordings around: not only a brilliant soloist but an incredibly good chamber ensemble.  Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic coda section from 14:15 onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord!  I used to have a treasured LP of this work, conducted by the composer and featuring Goodman himself.  This stunning performance leaves it rather in the shadows.  Sorry, Benny.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Squeeze me

Catch a what?

Hoofing around

One hit wonders

Licorice sticks