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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update November 26, 2016

Famous fives

Carl Nielsen

If you spent your childhood years in Great Britain it’s more than likely that you came across a series of children’s books by Enid Blyton that related the summer holiday adventures of four children and a dog.  I refer of course to the so-called Famous Five although this name wasn’t used until 1951, after nine books in the series had already been published.  Enid Blyton evidently intended to write only six or eight books, but their huge commercial success encouraged her to write twenty-one full-length Famous Five novels, as well as a number of other series on similar themes.  She could apparently complete out a book within a week and sometimes it showed, for the plots and scenarios were often repetitive.

The Famous Five never grew up with the series; they were locked in childhood forever.  The books are still selling today at a staggering rate of two million copies a year and they’ve been translated into ninety languages.  Yes, including Thai since you asked.  Out of curiosity, I bought a Thai version and wondered what the average kid in Buriram would make of these privileged, well-educated middle-class and slightly insufferable kids obsessed with chasing petty criminals.

Anyway, let’s turn to another famous five, Denmark’s best-known woodwind quintet.  Known as Carion they “inject new life into the woodwind quintet genre… promising an extraordinary concert experience.”  They usually play from memory which is remarkable for any ensemble.  This freedom from the clutter of music and music stands enables them to communicate more effectively with one another as well as with the audience.  Like actors in a play, they use movement, gesture and facial expressions to dramatize the music and this makes for an unusual and fascinating performance experience.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Quintet Op. 43. Carion Wind Quintet. (Duration: 26:45; Video: 1080p HD)

In this performance the audio and the video were recorded separately.  It’s fascinating to see how the performers interpret the music but if you find the theatricals a bit distracting at first, do persevere because it becomes clear how the musicians have carefully choreographed their movements.  It really does seem to add an extra dimension to the performance.  Notice how the oboe and bassoon often seem to have conversations together and at other moments the bassoon and horn engage in a chat.  There’s a splendid dramatic confrontation between the bassoon and the clarinet at 19:26.

This work is scored for the usual combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon and was composed early in 1922.  It’s considered one of the finest works of its type and has a permanent place in the wind quintet repertoire.  Nielsen wrote that he “attempted to render the characters of the various instruments.  At one moment they are all talking at once, at another they are alone.” 

This is a melodious and charming work which I suppose would be described as neo-classical.  If Nielsen’s music is new to you, this would be as good an introduction as any.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (“The Trout”). Daniel Barenboim (pno), Itzhak Perlman (vln), Pinchas Zukerman (vla) Jacqueline du Pre (vlc) Zubin Mehta (db) (Duration: 55:33; Video: 360p)

Just look at who’s playing!  You can’t get much more famous than these people.  You might be surprised to see the conductor Zubin Mehta as the double bassist.  This is a wonderful documentary film by Christopher Nupen made in 1969 when all the performers were in their early twenties.  It records the preparation for a concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as the concert itself.

The first quarter of an hour shows the artists arriving in London and their first rehearsal.  It is wonderful to see these legendary names so early in their careers and fascinating to see them in rehearsal together.  There are plenty of laughs too, especially as they lark around in the artists’ room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall before the performance.  Needless to say, the playing is superb and the sound quality reveals the viola and cello parts clearly.  It’s interesting to see how much visual communication is going on during the performance.

It might seem odd to name a quintet after a fish, but as with most things, there’s an explanation.  Schubert wrote this work in 1819 when he was twenty-two years old and incidentally, around the same age as the musicians in the film.  The fourth movement is a set of variations on his song Die Forelle (“The Trout”) which he wrote a couple of years earlier.  Schubert was best-known in Vienna as a song-writer and the song Die Forelle was something of a hit.  His song-writing skills are very much in evidence in this thoroughly joyful and tuneful work.  Even if you know it well, you’re bound to find something new and exciting in this wonderful performance.

Update November 19, 2016

Latvian voices

Peteris Vasks in 2007

Right then, let’s begin with a quiz question to test your geographical awareness.  Can you name the nine countries that have a coastline on the Baltic Sea?  Close your eyes and don’t cheat.  To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure until I ferreted out a map of Europe yesterday morning.  If you were to swim around the Baltic coast from the south-west in a clockwise direction, you’d splash your way past the coastlines of Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.  The swim would be over five thousand miles so you’d certainly shed a few pounds in the process.  (Incidentally, there’s no charge for this helpful slimming tip.)

The Danish, Dutch, German, Norwegian and Swedish names for the Baltic translate as the “eastern sea” whereas in Estonian the name translates as the “western sea”.  This perhaps is hardly surprising given the relative positions of the countries.  But then the Finns insist on calling it the “eastern sea” even though the Baltic is actually west of Finland.  It’s all a bit confusing, possibly for them too.

My current interest in the Baltic is because 18th November is Latvia’s National Day.  The Republic of Latvia - to give the country its full name - was founded on this date in 1918.  Unfortunately, independence was somewhat short-lived because in 1940 the country was forcibly drawn into the Soviet Union; it was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941 and then re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944.  The peaceful “Singing Revolution” began in the late 1980s and called for Baltic emancipation which eventually led to the restoration of independence in 1991.

The Singing Revolution was an extraordinary series of events which occurred not only in Latvia but also in Estonia and Lithuania.  If you’re interested, you can find all about it online but it demonstrated the enormous political power of music.  Choral traditions have always been strong in Latvia.  There are many professional choirs and thousands of Latvians take part in amateur choral groups.  Every five years the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival involves around twenty thousand singers.

Peteris Vasks (b. 1946): The Fruit of Silence. Latvian Radio Choir, Riga Sinfonietta cond. Sigvards Kïava (Duration: 09:05; Video 480p)

One of Latvia’s professional choirs is The Latvian Radio Choir which celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary last year.  It has always had a close collaboration with Latvian composers, one of whom is Peteris Vasks - often associated with his country’s struggle for independence.  He was born into the family of a Baptist pastor and later trained as a violinist.  He eventually switched to double bass and studied at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.

Although his early composing style was influenced by the music of Lutos³awski, Penderecki and the American composer George Crumb, his later writing has become deeply rooted in the rich folk tradition of Latvia which dates back over a thousand years.  His works are clear and communicative, with a sense of harmony and a hint of minimalism.  He’s written a large amount of choral and orchestral music along with three symphonies and five string quartets.

This remarkably beautiful work dates from 2013 and it’s a profoundly spiritual setting of a text by Mother Theresa.  The fruit of silence is prayer.  The fruit of prayer is faith.  The fruit of faith is love.  The fruit of love is service.  The fruit of service is peace.

Imants Kalniòs (b. 1941): Symphony No. 4 “Rock Symphony”. Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic cond. Kristjan Jarvi (Duration: 11.37; Video: 1080p HD)

There couldn’t be a starker contrast between The Fruit of Silence and the first movement of the Imants Kalniòs Rock Symphony.  Considered one of today’s most important Latvian composers, he’s already written oratorios, cantatas, choral works, film music, several operas and six symphonies.  Unusually for a “classical” composer he’s best known for his pop-style songs.  During the 1960s, Kalniòs led the rock band 2xBBM which became hugely popular in Latvia.  Kalnins returned to writing symphonic music in the 1970s but still made occasional forays into popular music writing songs for Latvian rock bands.

The Rock Symphony was composed in 1972.  It’s in four movements and you can find the complete work - as well as the entire concert - on YouTube.  The first movement (performed here) makes a special feature of the percussion section and the music begins quietly, building up through a long crescendo to the several exciting climaxes.  It’s relentlessly minimalistic and repetitive but has superb orchestration and a driving sense of rhythm. 

Each year, the finest young musicians are chosen from the Baltic States to form the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic.  Guided by its founder and Music Director Kristjan Jarvi, the orchestra undertakes regular international tours.  This captivating performance was part of a concert given at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.  This venerable building hosted the world première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 and thus has the dubious honour of being the scene of a famous classical music riot.

Update November 12, 2016

Token Poles


Ignacy Jan Paderewski
at age twenty-four.

If you happen to be Polish, you’ll be aware that 11th November is Poland’s National Independence Day.  By the end of the eighteenth century Poland had been divided up between Austria, Prussia and Russia and subsequently disappeared off the map of Europe.  Over the years, the Poles struggled to keep their identity despite the fact that in the Russian district they were not even allowed to speak their own language.  Polish independence is closely connected with the end of the World War I and was officially announced in 1918 though their troubles were far from over.

“So what’s all this got to do with music?” I hear you muttering.  Well, the reason is that in 1919 the first Prime Minister of independent Poland was a musician.  He was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Poland’s representative to the League of Nations.  I refer of course, to the charismatic Ignacy Jan Paderewski who was a successful composer and a brilliant pianist.  The previous years had seen him give concerts throughout Europe and over a hundred concerts in both the USA and Canada.

During the First World War, with the help of US President Wilson and Herbert Hoover, he raised millions of dollars of American aid for Polish war casualties.  Later, as the representative of Poland he signed the Versailles Treaty which restored Polish sovereignty after more than a hundred and twenty years.  However, after ten months of being Prime Minister he abruptly ended his successful political career and returned to music.

Today, Paderewski would be called a superstar.  His brilliant playing created a sensation at every concert and his name was synonymous with the highest level of piano virtuosity.  He’s one of the few classical composers who are represented on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Incidentally, it was Paderewski who said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it.  If I miss two days, the critics notice it.  If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941): Piano Concerto in A minor Op.17. Konrad Olszewski (pno), Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra (Melbourne) cond. Mark Shiell (Duration: 36:11; Video: 720p)

Paderewski composed this sparkling concerto in his apartment in Vienna when he was about twenty-eight.  It was 1888, the same year as his triumphant debuts in Vienna, Paris and London.  It’s an exuberant work influenced by the music of Liszt and Saint-Saëns and remarkably mature, showing a wealth of melodic imagination.  When Paderewski was in Paris, he took the completed score to Camille Saint-Saëns for an expert opinion.  The older composer was evidently enthusiastic. 

After a lively and virtuosic opening movement, there’s a gentle, lyrical slow movement with ravishing harmonies and it’s not difficult to see why Saint-Saëns was so impressed.  Look out for the magic moment in the bustling last movement when the wind instruments play a beautiful hymn-like melody.

I suppose when most people think of Polish music, they think of Chopin.  Surprisingly this concerto owes little to Chopin but demonstrates that Paderewski should be heard more often.  He really should be considered in the same league as his “big three” compatriots Wieniawski, Szymanowski and Lutos³awski.

Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981): Colas Breugnon. Capella Bydgostiensis cond. Maciej Niesio³owski (Duration: 15:29; Video 480p)

We don’t hear much music by Tadeusz Baird either.  His parents were Scottish immigrants which is why his surname doesn’t sound especially Polish.  From 1977 onwards he was a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Music and was also on the staff of the Berlin Academie der Künste.  He wrote music for the cinema and theatre as well as a lot of chamber music and four large symphonies.

You might know the name Colas Breugnon from an overture by Dmitry Kabalevsky.  Colas Breugnon is the main character in a 1919 novel by Romain Rolland which described rural life in Burgundy three hundred years ago.  Both Kabalevsky and Baird based their music on the novel.  The Baird work dates from 1951 and takes the form of a six-movement suite “in the old style” scored for flute and strings.  It contains some lovely writing and some wistful and delicate slow movements in which the rich harmonies might remind you of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  The remaining movements are charming and dance-like and make for delightful listening.

Capella Bydgostiensis is one of the leading professional chamber orchestras in Poland and performs a wide range of repertoire from the early Baroque to the most recent works of the twenty-first century.

Oh yes, going back to Paderewski, there’s an interesting wine connection.  Just before World War 1, Paderewski bought a 2,000-acre property - Rancho San Ignacio near Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of California.  He later planted Zinfandel vines there and when they matured the wine was produced at the nearby York Mountain Winery.  It remains one of the best-known wineries between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Update November 5, 2016

Starting young


Gabriel Fauré in 1905. (Photo: Pierre Petit)

On a question-and-answer website last week someone asked if he could become a professional violinist if he started lessons at the age of eighteen.  He’d evidently not played the violin (or anything else) before.  The response from several professional string players and teachers who took it upon themselves to answer was a resounding “no”.  Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t start violin lessons at that age.  You might even become passably good but you’d be pretty unlikely to ever reach a professional standard.

Violinist and teacher Sue Hunt claims that playing the violin is “the most complicated activity” known to humankind.  It’s one of the reasons that top players start young.  The Japanese teacher Shinichi Suzuki pioneered the notion that given the right musical environment, infants could learn to play the violin if the learning steps and the instrument were small enough.  Some of his beginners were just two years old.  This is unusually early and many string teachers consider the ideal age to be between three and five.  However, an overwhelming passion to learn the instrument and the ability to concentrate are probably more important than the physical age.

The trouble is that there’s such a lot to learn.  While the right hand has to develop a range of bowing skills, the left hand – not normally the one used for dexterous activity - has to do all the work producing the notes, sometimes in rapid succession.  There is no visual guide on the fingerboard, so the position of every note has to be learned.  Playing in tune is a skill in itself.  And of course, playing the right notes in the right place is only half the story.  It’s obvious that a range of musical and interpretational skills are also needed if the music is going to make any sense.  Clearly, the sooner the child starts the better.

To qualify for any Music College at around the age of eighteen, students are required to be highly skilled musicians.  Cellists for example, will be expected to be at a standard at which they can manage a half-decent performance of two particular works by Gabriel Fauré and Max Bruch.  They’re staples of the cello repertoire and every student comes across them at some point.  But they are both such wonderful works that studying them is a joy.  Well, most of the time.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Élégie for cello and orchestra Op. 24. Anna Grondalska (vlc), Szymanowski School of Music Symphony Orchestra cond. Marcin Grabosz (Duration: 07:21; Video: 720p HD)

Fauré (FOR-ray) is today perhaps best-known for his Requiem and was one of the foremost French composers of his generation.  In 1880, having just completed his First Piano Quartet, Fauré began work on a cello sonata and in his usual manner, started writing the slow movement first.  For some reason the rest of the sonata was never completed and in 1883 the slow movement was published as a stand-alone piece called Élégie.  The first performance was given the same year at the Société Nationale de Musique in 1883 and was such a great success that the conductor Édouard Colonne asked Fauré to write an arrangement for cello and orchestra.  The arrangement was premiered in 1901; the legendary Pablo Casals was soloist and the composer conducted.

There are several fine recordings of this work from which to choose but this one, performed by young musicians from Wroclaw in Poland has excellent audio quality and you can clearly hear the expressive counter-melodies in the woodwind.

Max Bruch (1838-1920): Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra, Op.47. Matt Haimovitz (vlc), Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI cond. Daniel Oren (Duration: 14:47; Video: 720p HD)

Strangely enough, at about the same time in 1880 that Fauré was writing his Élégie in Paris, Bruch was writing his Kol Nidrei (NEE-dry) in Liverpool.  It was published in Berlin in 1881 and the title means “all vows” in Aramaic.  It was one of the first pieces Bruch wrote when he took up the post of Principal Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, composed specifically for Liverpool’s Jewish community.  It’s based on two Hebrew melodies, the first which is first heard on the solo cello and comes from the traditional service on the night of Yom Kippur. 

Contrary to popular belief Bruch wasn’t Jewish himself but was friendly with several prominent Jewish musicians of the day.  This evocative music shows Bruch at his best with lovely melodies sumptuously harmonized.  This is a splendid performance and at 07:12 another melodious treat is in store, a plaintive Hebrew melody that forms the second subject of the work.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz was born in 1970 and started learning cello at an early age.  He later studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School.  Rose described Haimovitz as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught”.  When this recording was made, he was just twenty-one and already a successful international musician. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Famous fives

Latvian voices

Token Poles

Starting young