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Update August 2016


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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern
 
 
 

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

Update August 27, 2016

Scotland the Brave

Stefan Jackiw. (Photo/Oregon Symphony)

You’ll probably recognise the title as that of a well-known patriotic song but it’s not as old as you might imagine.  The song appeared around the turn of the twentieth century and the lyrics that are sung today didn’t appear until the 1950s.  It’s one of several songs considered an unofficial national anthem.  I use the word “unofficial” because strangely enough, Scotland doesn’t have a national anthem.  At international sporting events, a song called Flower of Scotland is sometimes used in place of one but the song is still under copyright restrictions, having being written in the 1960s by Roy Williamson of The Corries folk group.

Several non-Scottish composers have written music about the country. Malcolm Arnold is an English composer whose Four Scottish Dances remain popular.  The American light music composer, Leroy Anderson wrote a Scottish Suite and the Czech composer Antonn Dvorak wrote a work for piano called Scottish Dances.

It’s quite coincidental that the two works this week – both inspired by Scotland and written by two German composers – are played by two orchestras from Galicia.  In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew) the area known as Galicia lies on the north-west Atlantic coast of Spain, directly north of Portugal.  Incidentally, Galicia has its own language, closely related to Portuguese and spoken by half the population as their first language.

Max Bruch (1838-1920): Scottish Fantasy Op. 48. Stefan Jackiw (vln), Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Rumon Gamba. (Duration 33:12; Video 1080p HD)

If Max Bruch hadn’t been a close friend of several violin virtuosos such as Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim and Pablo de Sarasate his music could well have been completely forgotten.  Only two works for violin and orchestra remain in the mainstream repertoire; this one and the first violin concerto.  In his day Bruch was known as a writer of choral music, but he also wrote many orchestral works including three symphonies, his first at the age of fourteen.  In later years he completed four operas, several concertos and a large amount of chamber music including some string quartets.

The Scottish Fantasy was completed in 1880.  It’s a violin concerto in all but name, and although Bruch never visited Scotland, the work uses melodies derived from Scottish folk songs.  It was given its first performance in Liverpool in 1881 with Bruch himself conducting.  The work begins quietly with sustained chords on the brass.  The main violin theme is remarkably beautiful and you might even recognise some of the folk-inspired melodies, especially the one that kicks off the sizzling last movement.

This fine performance is given by the Symphony Orchestra of Galicia conducted by Rumon Gamba, who despite his foreign-sounding name, is a very successful English conductor of the younger generation.  The star of the show is undoubtedly the brilliant violinist Stefan Jackiw who was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a Korean mother and a Ukrainian father.  The Washington Post recently described him as having “talent that’s off the scale” and The Boston Globe described his playing as “striking for its intelligence and sensitivity”.  He has appeared as soloist with the world’s top orchestras and is much in demand.  His stunning performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at Sydney Opera House was evidently watched by more than 30 million people worldwide.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”). Concierto de la Orquesta Joven de la OSG, dir. Roberto González Monjas. (Duration 41:33; Video 1080p HD)

Unlike Bruch, Felix Mendelssohn actually went to Scotland on an extensive walking tour as part of his first visit to Britain in 1829.  Scotland must have had quite an impression on the composer because it also inspired The Hebrides overture, sometimes known as Fingal’s Cave.  After this was completed he started sketches for the symphony, although progress on the work was difficult, so much so that he left it for ten years and didn’t complete it until 1842.  Oddly enough, although it was the fifth and final symphony to be completed by Mendelssohn, it was the third to be published and has been known as Symphony No. 3 ever since.

It has an imposing first movement and unusually the second movement (at 15:49) is a fast one with a lovely, sunny theme which may strike you as familiar.  This movement is meticulously played with splendid precision and articulation especially by the brass.  The last movement draws ideas from Scottish dance although unlike Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, no genuine Scottish folk songs have been identified.

The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Galicia is in splendid form and the performance is directed by the orchestra’s leader.  But because the work requires a relatively small number of players, a conductor is not entirely necessary.  Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting to see an empty space where the conductor usually stands.


Update August 20, 2016

From riches to rags

The courtyard at the Palace of Mannheim.
(Photo/Immanuel Giel)

One afternoon back in the 1980s, I was bowling along a German autobahn in my Datsun Bluebird coupé having spent a pleasant week in Bavaria with some German friends.  The car was a real little stunner, a rich brown colour with a cream vinyl covered roof and a tasteful go-faster stripe along each side.  It was a big hit everywhere in Bavaria and someone even offered to buy it.

I was driving on the A61, heading in the approximate direction of Britain.  I knew from the road signs that I was near Mannheim and decided to drive into town and find a cheap hotel for the night.  So as usual, I looked out for the familiar signs with the word “Zentrum” pointing the way to the city centre but none appeared.  After a time the road signs showed that I was heading for Bingen and I had missed the turn into Mannheim altogether.  I muttered “Oh bother” to myself (or words to that effect) and spent the night in Bingen instead.

Mannheim is important in musical history and one of the reasons I wanted to go there.  In the late eighteenth century, Mannheim had the finest and most famous court orchestra anywhere.  It attracted some of Europe’s best instrumental players and composers and was lavishly funded by Duke Karl Theodor.  It eventually became known as the Mannheim School, but not a building with classrooms and desks.  The term referred not only to the new techniques pioneered by the orchestra but also the group of composers who wrote for it.

The composer Carl Stamitz is closely associated with the Mannheim School and his father Johann is considered the founder.  Oddly enough, other composers connected with the Mannheim School have since faded into obscurity but Stamitz is particularly remembered for his tuneful and elegant music.

The composers at Mannheim introduced a number of novel ideas into orchestral music.  The most famous was the sudden crescendo for the full orchestra – a dramatic effect that evidently caused some ladies in the audience to faint.  Then there was the so-called Mannheim Rocket which was a quick ascending passage in the melody.  They invented the Mannheim Roller, not a fairground ride but an extended crescendo passage with a rising melodic line over a repeated bass pattern.  The so-called Grand Pause originated in Mannheim too, a dramatic effect still used today in which the entire orchestra stops playing for a few seconds resulting in complete silence, only to start again, usually loudly and energetically.

Carl Stamitz (1745-1801): Flute Concerto in G major. Davide Baldo (flt), Bohème Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Montesano (Duration: 17:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Carl Stamitz was born in Mannheim and as expected, grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps.  By the age of seventeen he was employed as a violinist in the court orchestra and his father must have had hopes for him.  However, at the age of twenty-five, Carl left his secure job in Mannheim and began concert tours around Europe.  For a time he lived in London.  He was a prolific composer, turning out more than fifty symphonies, sixty concertos and a large amount of chamber music.  The concertos are noted for melodic appeal and courtly grace rather than virtuosity.  Because they are not too difficult to play, many of them are popular with music students today.

Despite his musical achievements Stamitz was less successful at managing his finances.  The young Beethoven observed that Stamitz was dressed poorly at a concert and looked decidedly scruffy, something that would never have been tolerated in the well-disciplined Mannheim orchestra.

Carl Stamitz: Cello Concerto in G major (1st mvt). Vid Veljak (vlc), Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra cond. Aurélien Bello (Duration: 09:39; Video: 1080p HD)

For some reason only the first movement of this concerto was recorded but it is worth hearing because of the splendid orchestral playing.  The soloist is the Croatian cellist Vid Veljak who was sixteen when this video was made although during the orchestral introduction he occasionally seems slightly bewildered.

Stamitz never managed to hold down a job with one of the major royal courts.  He returned to Mannheim in 1795 but soon after accepted the post of concertmaster at Jena in Central Germany.  It seems that he taught at the university there, but received only a modest income.  He began to sink deeply into debt and eventually and inevitably his funds ran dry.  Then in January 1801, his wife died.  By the following November Stamitz too was in his grave.  All his possessions, including many tracts on alchemy were auctioned to pay off his debts.

Whether Stamitz was studying alchemy to try and turn base metals into gold, cure some disease or search for the elixir of youth we simply don’t know.  But he must have felt pretty desperate.  As Doris Day sang a hundred and fifty years later, Que sera, sera.  Whatever will be, will be.


Update August 13, 2016

Special effects

Heinrich von Biber.

Three hundred and seventy-two years ago Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was baptized on 12th August 1644 in the small Bohemian town of Wartenberg. Although he had a modest background, he was to become one of the most important composers for the violin in the history of the instrument. But not only that, Biber (BEE-buh) developed violin playing techniques that were previously unknown.

For example, he was able to reach much higher notes than were previously thought possible, he developed the difficult skill of playing several notes at the same time, a technique known as multiple-stopping. He also experimented with alternative bowing techniques and tunings, enabling the playing of chords on the violin that was previously impossible. And of course, all these brilliant new developments were incorporated into his music for solo violin. Despite the fact that he gave relatively few concerts, his music was imitated throughout Europe, demonstrating once again that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

When Biber was born, it was the musical period now known as the Middle Baroque. The Italian composer Vivaldi was not born until thirty years later and the composers Bach and Handel didn’t see the light of day until 1685. In Biber’s time, composers were often considered no more important than servants. But Biber worked his way up the social and professional ladders and eventually became music director or Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg. At the time, you couldn’t get a much better job than that.

A hundred years later, the English music historian Charles Burney wrote “of all the violin players of the last century, Biber seems to have been the best.” There’s no doubt that he was a virtuoso performer who could tackle the most difficult music and even today some of his solo violin pieces are notoriously challenging to perform.

Heinrich Ignaz von Biber (1644-1704): Battalia. Matheus Ensemble dir. Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Duration: 09:53; Video 360p)

This remarkable work is one of the earliest examples of descriptive music and was one of Biber’s several “representational pieces”. It’s a musical description of a battle and was written in 1683 probably for carnival celebrations at the Salzburg Court. It’s scored for three violins, four violas, cello, double bass and harpsichord continuo. You’ll sometimes see this work referred to as Battalia à 9 or sometimes Battalia à 10 referring to the number of individual instrumental parts, not the number of players. The difference in the numbering depends on whether the continuo is included.

The eight-movement suite is full of musical special effects and novel string techniques some of which were years before their time. In the first movement, string players are instructed to tap the strings with the wood of the bow, an effect known as col legno (“with the wood”). The technique was later used over two hundred years later by Gustav Holst in Mars from The Planets suite.

The second movement (at 01:50) is also two hundred years ahead of its time and features eight popular songs played in different keys anticipating the music of Charles Ives. It is incredibly dissonant and symbolizes a crowd of drunken soldiers dejectedly singing different songs. Later in the work we hear left-hand pizzicato. At one point, the cello imitates a drum and at another, Biber writes in the score that the double bass player must “place a piece of paper on the string” to create the cracking sound of artillery. The bass player is also instructed to pluck the string with such force that it rebounds against the fingerboard, perhaps the earliest historical example of slap bass.

The surprisingly beautiful and moving last movement (at 08:22) gives a picture of a desolate misty battleground littered with dying soldiers. However, despite these dramatic effects which must have raised seventeenth century eyebrows, the work exudes a kind of quaint charm. It’s directed with infectious enthusiasm by violinist Jean-Christophe Spinosi.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: Requiem in F minor. University of North Texas Singers, UNT Baroque Orchestra cond. Richard Sparks (Duration: 29:36; Video: 1080p HD)

Biber didn’t limit himself to music for the violin. He was also a prolific composer of sacred vocal works: masses, requiems and motets. One of his best-known choral works is this resplendent five-movement Requiem in F con terza minore (Requiem in F minor). Composed in 1692 for voices, strings and brass it’s regarded as one of the most original and impressive seventeenth century settings of the requiem mass. From the commanding opening chords the music radiates authority and consummate musical skill. Biber contrasts solo voices with the choir and with the instruments, using a rich harmonic language and often complex rhythms. The recorded sound is especially compelling and with headphones, you’ll get a wonderful sense of spaciousness. It must have sounded magnificent when it was performed at Salzburg cathedral.


Update August 6, 2016

Swiss roles

 

Composer Ernest Bloch.

When the word Switzerland is mentioned what springs to mind? Perhaps lakes and mountains, or if you’re a food-orientated type, perhaps it’s chocolate and cheese. You might be surprised to know that the country produces over four hundred varieties of cheese, although we don’t see many of them in these parts. Then there’s fondue and of course rösti - the up-market version of hash-browns. Or maybe you’d think about those absurdly expensive Swiss watches. Don’t mention cuckoo clocks because some clever dick is bound to tell you that they originally came from Germany.

One thing that probably won’t spring to mind is a long list of Swiss classical composers. With neighboring countries like Germany, Austria and Italy you can make a list of composers as long as your arm, but not so with Switzerland. According to historians Denis Arnold and John Borwick, musical development there was hindered not only by its mountainous terrain but also by the lack of wealthy patronage which had prevailed in neighboring countries for centuries.

The early developments in Swiss choral music ended abruptly with the Reformation. The stern-faced reformer and kill-joy Ulrich Zwingli detested elaborate church music and insisted on simple chants. Church organs were unceremoniously hauled away removed or even destroyed. Unlike other countries, there was no encouragement to write church music and no wealthy royal patrons to pay for anything else. Anyone who wanted to write music for a living simply drifted off elsewhere. Classical music in Switzerland never really found its feet until the twentieth century.

Wikipedia lists 265 Swiss composers, the majority of the twentieth century but it’s unlikely you’ll recognise many names. One of the most famous is Arthur Honegger, best-known for his Pacific 231, an atmospheric symphonic poem inspired by the eponymous locomotive. Then there’s Ernest Bloch, Frank Martin and Rolf Liebermann. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget the Renaissance composer Ludwig Senfl - one of those who left Switzerland in search of better things. He became the music director to the court of Maximilian I in Germany though you’re more likely to encounter his name in history books rather than in concert programmes.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959): From Jewish Life. Vid Veljak (vlc), Zagreb Soloists (Duration: 09:29; Video: 1080p HD)

Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva and studied composition with Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, who later became better known for his work in music education. As a teenager Bloch moved to Brussels and studied with the legendary Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. He eventually settled in America in 1917.

Bloch composed the suite From Jewish Life in 1924. If you know Max Bruch’s work for cello and orchestra entitled Kol Nidrei which is based on a mournful melody from the Yom Kippur service, Bloch’s haunting music will seem strangely familiar. The composer himself wrote “it is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music... I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music.” Bloch’s role as a composer was to write music from the heart; music which spoke of passion and sorrow.

This beautiful work has declamatory melodies and characteristic rich harmonies within an atmosphere of intense sadness. There are three movements entitled Prayer, Supplication and the plaintive Jewish Song beautifully performed by this young, talented Croatian cellist. The second movement contains echoes – intentional or otherwise - of Wieniawski’s second violin concerto.

Frank Martin (1890–1974): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Felix Froschhammer (vln), Ensemble Symphonique Neuchâtel cond. Alexander Mayer (Duration: 33:13; Video: 1080 HD)

The name sounds so terribly English, yet Frank Martin was a true European. Like Bloch he was born in Geneva; the tenth and youngest child of a clergyman’s family. He was attracted to music as a child and by the age of nine he had started composing. When he was twelve, he discovered the music of J.S. Bach which had a profound impression on him for the rest of his life. He turned out to be a young man of talent, studying mathematics and physics at the University of Geneva and at the same time studying piano and composition. Between 1918 and 1926 he lived in Zurich, Rome and Paris, later moving to Amsterdam.

This concerto dates from 1951 and like much of Martin’s music has a sense of organic growth. The slow movement (at 15:11) is particularly rewarding. Martin developed his own intensely personal musical idiom that blended tonality with a kind of modified serial technique borrowed from Arnold Sch๖nberg. It’s been described as “tonal atonality”. Perhaps that was his role as a composer. Anyway, if it all sounds a bit daunting, don’t be put off. I admit that this concerto isn’t chewing-gum music, but it’s profoundly lyrical and has many compelling moments. It really wants to tell you something. You just need to give it the chance.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Scotland the Brave

From riches to rags

Special effects

Swiss roles
 

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