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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update March 26, 2016

It’s all Greek to me

Iannis Xenakis.

Well, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but today, Friday 25th March is Greek Independence Day, a national holiday commemorating the start of the War of Greek Independence in 1821.  It’s a day of food, drink, dance and music.  I came across Greek folk music as a college student because a friend had somehow acquired a collection of Eastern European music tapes.  And what wonderful music it was!  Greek dances are often set to complex time signatures which gives them an enticing lilt and invariably a sense of the musically unexpected.

Sadly, at school we kids never had the chance to learn Greek.  The only classical language on the curriculum was Latin and everyone had to study it for a year or two, learning sentences like “The soldiers have laid waste the farmers’ fields” and similar useful everyday expressions.

Try to think of Greek classical composers and you’ll probably come up with precious few.  Mikis Theodorakis of Zorba the Greek fame is one of the best-known but few people realise that he’s also written over a thousand songs, five operas, seven symphonies as well as a vast amount of other works.  It’s a pity we don’t hear more of his music.  Dimitri Mitropoulos is better known as a conductor but was also a composer while Vangelis Papathanassiou - who understandably goes by his first name - has carved a niche for himself in more popular musical styles.

Most classical music listeners will recall the names Nikos Skalkottas and Iannis Xenakis though neither of them is heard much these days.  Skalkottas was a prolific composer though his austere post-Schoenberg musical style won him few admirers in the Greek musical establishment.  A few of his more approachable works were tonal in nature and surprisingly attractive, like this one for instance.

Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949): Five Greek Dances for String Orchestra. Camerata Aragón dir. Rolando Prusak (Duration: 19:03; Video 480p)

There are actually thirty-six of these short Greek dances and this performance includes five of them.  You can’t miss the distinctive Eastern European flavours that pervade this lively music.

The first dance Epirotikos has Hungarian overtones and shades of Bartók with percussive, insistent rhythms and brilliant string writing.  The remaining dances are characterized by incisive spiky rhythms, contrasted with quieter reflective passages.  The fourth dance Arkadikos is romantic in outlook with lovely folk-like melodies.  The final dance whirls along with some brilliant playing from this fine Spanish ensemble, actually the chamber orchestra of the Aragón Music Conservatoire.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001): Terretektorh for Orchestra. Radio Orchestra of Hessischer Rundfunk cond. Matthias Pintscher (Duration: 17:18; Video 720p HD)

This is a work that you’ll probably either find exhilarating and aesthetically stimulating, or you will hate it.  Iannis Xenakis (YAH-nis zeh-NAH-kis) was not known for catchy melodies and foot-tapping rhythms because he had more serious things on his mind.  His background in architecture and advanced mathematics gave him the incentive to explore new territories in time and space and in this music you may even notice echoes of Messiaen and Varčse.

Xenakis delights in creating his own sound-world and in a sense this work, though music it certainly is, takes us far away from the conventional conceptions of music.  It dates from 1966, and the members of the audience are placed among the orchestra.  As a result, there’s no clear divide between the eighty-eight performers and the audience: the psychological barrier between audience and performers has been removed.  The orchestral players are required to double on percussion instruments such as the maracas, the wood-block, the whip (two pieces of wood slapped together) and a siren whistle.

The first single note on the viola moves from instrument to instrument around the performance area and the work is built up by creating contrasting textures.  The composer wrote that “the speeds and accelerations of the movement of the sounds will be realized including logarithmic or Archimedean spirals in time and geometrically creating ordered or disordered sonorous masses”.  This seems to mean that if you can produce a large enough number of sounds and make them occur slightly out of sync with each other on different instruments in different positions the overall effect is like clouds of sound moving around.  Xenakis created elaborate diagrams to indicate how the instruments of the orchestra were to be arranged and although his technical description might seem a bit opaque, the music has a raw visceral energy which is quite thrilling to experience.

You need the best audio system available to get an idea of how this work might sound in a live performance.  Even a top-quality stereo system is not enough because the music is ambiophonic in that the sounds come from all directions.  The best way to hear this work is to turn off the video and listen to it in total darkness but don’t blame me if the experience completely freaks you out.

Update March 19, 2016

Major Thirds

Robert Schumann
circa 1850.

A long time ago when I was two or three years old, I used to tinkle around on my grandmother’s piano.  My earliest memory was the discovery that the notes F sharp and B flat played simultaneously sounded the same as the local air-raid siren.  I was tremendously excited about this revelation though no one else shared my enthusiasm.  Perhaps they were more concerned about the impending bombs, though we lived in a residential district and the enemy planes (I was told in later years) usually performed their unwelcome task above industrial areas.

Another thing I didn’t know at the time was that the two notes, more accurately described as F sharp and A sharp create a sound called a major third.  If you sing the first two notes of Morning Has Broken or Kum Ba Yah you’ll hear the notes of a major third, assuming of course that you’re singing in tune.  Of course, a major third can be produced on any note of the scale, but for some reason I selected an F sharp.

The major third is one of the most significant sounds in western music because it has informed the basis of harmony.  It wasn’t always thus.  During the early Middle Ages the major third was - rather surprisingly - considered discordant.  I was ruminating about major thirds a couple of days ago and although the subject is totally unrelated, I wondered how many important third symphonies start off in a major key.  As it turned out, not a lot.

Mozart chose E flat major for his Third Symphony but he was only eight years old and I suspect that his pushy father probably wrote most of it.  Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich also selected E flat major for their Third Symphonies and Brahms chose F major.  Tchaikovsky wrote his Third in D major and Sibelius wrote his in C major.  Max Bruch wrote his little-known Third in E major.  And as far as I know, that’s about it.  All the other major composers chose a minor key.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97. Denmark Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Thomas Dausgaard (Duration: 33:02; Video: 1080p HD)

If you’re not familiar with Schumann’s symphonies, this is as good as anywhere to start because there are some memorable tunes, lively orchestral writing and some heroic moments for the brass.  It was the last symphony Schumann composed and dates from 1850.  His publisher named the symphony The Rhenish and the work was originally intended to portray musical images of the Rhineland but Schumann later removed the descriptive titles from the score.

The opening bars remind me of Beethoven’s Third and this is hardly surprising because Schumann almost certainly used Beethoven’s Third and Sixth symphonies as models.  He cast the work in five movements, just as Beethoven had done with his Sixth.  Even if you’ve never heard it before, the dance-like second movement may seem familiar.  It was originally entitled Morning on the Rhine and its lilting theme is almost pure Beethoven.

The third movement is a peaceful intermezzo and it’s followed by a solemn slow movement described by one writer as “perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring things Schumann ever penned for orchestra.”  The finale returns to the animated mood of the start and brings the work to a thrilling conclusion.

The first performance was conducted by Schumann and was a resounding success, the audience applauding enthusiastically after every movement.  After the Finale the orchestra joined the applause and cheered the composer, much no doubt, to his satisfaction.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897):  Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar cond. Nicolás Pasquet (Duration: 38:51; Video: 720p HD)

By the time Brahms finished this wonderful symphony in the summer of 1883 he had already completed some of his best-known works including the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and the popular Academic Festival Overture.  He was a big name - and on top form.

The Third has been described as “the most personal of Brahms’s four symphonies” though the composer resolutely refused to divulge any inner meaning.  It’s his shortest symphony and unusually for the time, all four movements end quietly.  It opens heroically with a three-note motif played by the woodwind and brass setting the mood for the entire work.  This motif appears in various forms during the first movement and is probably a clue to the inner meaning of the symphony but I’ll leave you to find out more, if these things interest you.

Even at a superficial level, the work contains some lovely music and the highly competent Professor Pasquet gives a splendid and measured reading of the work.  He really seems to bring out the best in these young musicians, who provide a memorable account of this fine yet so personal symphony.

Update March 12, 2016

Stringing along

Dag Wirén c. 1960.

It’s a well-known fact that orchestral string players tend to prefer the company of other string players and rarely mingle with the woodwind and especially not with the brass.  It’s not that string players are snobs you understand, they are just different and I speak as a one-time string player myself. (The cello, since you asked.)  As a result, you’ll nearly always find the happiest string players in string quartets or string orchestras where they’re not obliged to brush shoulders with those considered undesirable.

The string orchestra is popular with composers too and usually contains between twelve and twenty-four musicians.  Because the numbers are relatively small and the players can actually hear each other, they often perform without a conductor. 

There’s a surprisingly large repertoire for string orchestra and some composers have written entire symphonies for strings alone.  The Mendelssohn string symphonies and the Rossini string sonatas spring to mind.  Some of the best-loved works in the repertoire are written just for strings.  Perhaps you can recall Samuel Barber’s beautiful Adagio for Strings (originally for string quartet), Bartók’s elemental and rhythmic Divertimento for String Orchestra, Britten’s Simple Symphony, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings or Grieg’s Holberg Suite. There are others of course, but I can sense your eyes glazing over already so I won’t mention any more.

The concept of a “serenade” for strings is also popular.  The name implies something less serious in purpose than a symphony or suite and it probably all started with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, more correctly known as the Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, K. 525.  The work has actually nothing to do with “night music”.

Since then, many composers have borrowed Mozart’s idea and Serenades for Strings have been written by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Elgar, and the less well-known Russian composer Kalinnikov.  There are probably other composers of serenades but at this stage of the week I can’t think of any more.  But wait!  I’ve just remembered another one.

Dag Wirén (1905-1986): Serenade for Strings. Op 11. Cali Camerata (Duration 16:06; Video: 720p HD)

For some reason, the music of Dag Wirén ((dahg VEE-rehn) is not widely known outside his native Sweden despite the fact that he wrote five symphonies, five string quartets and four concertos, along with many other instrumental works and music for stage, film and radio.  It’s difficult to put a label on his music although the composer often said that he wanted to “entertain and please and to create a listener-friendly ‘modern’ music”.

He was born near the old Swedish town of Nora, where (you may be interested to know) his father had a roller blind factory.  The boy evidently discovered that music held more enchantment than roller blinds and subsequently went on to study at Stockholm Conservatory.  In 1932 he won a state stipend allowing him to study in Paris where he lived for several years. 

In the vibrant Paris of the 1930s the works of Stravinsky, Honegger and Prokofiev had a huge influence on Wirén and some of his music has a distinct neo-classical flavour, especially this Serenade.  The four-movement work is bright and lively and seems to reflect the lightness of touch that Mozart used in his own Serenade No 13.  If you are British and over a certain age you might recognize the main theme of the last movement, used as the signature tune to the BBC television arts programme Monitor which was broadcast from 1958 to 1965.

Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894): Adagio for String Orchestra. Heidelberg Youth Chamber Orchestra cond. Thomas Kalb (Duration: 11.21; Video: 720p HD)

You may have already noticed that this young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu (gee-OHM luh-KUH) had a tragically short life.  He contracted typhoid fever and died in his parents’ home in Angers just one day after his twenty-fourth birthday.  But by then he’d composed about fifty substantial works and many of them show the influence of César Franck with whom he studied for a time.

Guillaume was born near Verviers and at the age of nine moved with his parents to Poitiers in France.  He wrote his first pieces of music there, and later he went on to compose works which sometimes reflect his passion for Wagner but also look forward harmonically to the French music of the early twentieth century.

This Adagio is a fascinating work which makes much use of the solo violin and shows the young Lekeu to be an exceptional composer.  Opening with a sad reflective theme supported by French-sounding chromatic harmonies, the work explores a kaleidoscope of emotions and images.  There are tinges of profound melancholy contrasted with moments of sublime joy.  The performance is exceptional and it’s given by talented young string players from the Rhine-Neckar regions of Germany.  Some of them I’d guess would probably be about the same age as the composer when he wrote this remarkable work.

Update March 5, 2016

As different as…

The Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat. (Photo/Chensiyuan)

I’ll leave you to complete the phrase but please try to think of something more imaginative than “chalk and cheese.”  Anyway, the point is that I want to tell you about two interesting pieces which are about as different as they can get.  In a way, they sit at opposite ends of a creative spectrum.

One of them is a pious and affectionate statement of love and religious devotion, while the other is an expression of loathing, terror and despair brought about by one of the cruelest leaders the world has encountered.  The harmonic language is different too in that one of them gazes fondly back to the nineteenth century while the other sits firmly in the twentieth.

One work is written for a fairly small group of singers while the other is scored for an enormous orchestra.  The only thing that the performances have in common is that they’re given by children or young adults who collectively have achieved world-wide recognition.

Antoni Pérez Moya (1884-1964): Virgo Veneranda. Escolania de Montserrat, cond. Llorenç Castelló (Duration: 7:34; Video: 720p HD)

In the year 1025, the Benedictine community of Santa Maria de Montserrat was founded near Barcelona in Catalonia.  In case your Spanish geography is a bit hazy, Catalonia is that bit of Spain which sits up in the top north-east corner, next door to France. 

Sometime during the early fourteenth century, the choir school L’Escolania de Montserrat was established.  It is still in the same place today, right next to the Benedictine monastery nestling under the daunting crags of Montserrat’s Roca de St. Jaume.  And just in case you’re wondering, escolania means “choir school” and Montserrat means “serrated mountain”.

The choir is made up of more than fifty boy sopranos and altos between the ages of nine and fourteen who come from various towns in Catalonia and other parts of Spain.  The school provides full primary and secondary education with an emphasis on music.  Each student is required to study an orchestral instrument plus the piano and of course participate in the choir which gives daily performances in the Basilica for groups of tourists from around the world.  When the repertoire demands, the choir is augmented with lower voices, either ex-choirboys or monks from the abbey.

The midday singing of Salve Regina has become a popular tourist attraction as you’ll see from this video but despite the throngs of onlookers the magic remains.  This performance uses only a couple of dozen singers but their characteristic choral sound and remarkable tone quality is sublime.

Virgo Veneranda (Virgin most Venerable) is a short choral work from the prolific but little-known Catalan composer Antoni Pérez Moya, remembered today for only a handful of works though he actually wrote over a thousand.  This is a lovely piece with delicious twists of harmony that illuminate the soaring melodies and it’s accompanied on an impressive-looking four-manual modern organ.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 10. Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 59:24; Video: 480p)

The performance of this magisterial symphony couldn’t be more different from the rarified atmosphere of the Basilica of Santa Maria.  Dudamel conducts the work entirely from memory and at the start, you somehow get the feeling of embarking on a long journey. 

The work dates from 1953 and was composed in the same year that Joseph Stalin died.  Shostakovich wrote “I depict Stalin in my next symphony, the tenth.  I wrote it right after Stalin’s death and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about.”

The work begins in a dark reflective mood and ominous tensions begin to build during the first movement, which is actually an enormous slow waltz.  In the second movement, you can almost sense the demonic evil and frenzied violence.  It’s a short and fiery scherzo which the composer admitted was a musical portrait of Stalin who had the distinction of being described as “one of the most powerful and murderous dictators in history”.  Dudamel takes the movement at a furious tempo and the orchestra plays brilliantly. 

The third movement is a strangely troubled and macabre waltz that seems to be searching for something elusive while the final movement has some of the slowest music in the entire work and at times evokes a cold and barren wasteland.  Later, it becomes more animated and optimistic and finally ends in a thrilling mood of triumphant defiance.

Dudamel is his usual exuberant self and brings out the best from these young Venezuelans, although it has to be admitted that some of them are not so young anymore.  But even so, it’s a stunningly good performance and one of the most exciting that you’re likely to hear, if you can manage to ignore the inane chatter of the television presenters at the start.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

It’s all Greek to me

Major Thirds

Stringing along

As different as…