Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nereffid vs Mahler 2: It begins!

The only extant chamber music by Mahler is the Piano quartet movement in A minor, written in 1876 when he was a student in Vienna. It doesn't display much of the mature composer, aside perhaps from the general intensity of the music and a slightly incongruous salon-like cadenza for violin near the end that anticipates Mahler's tendency to make good use of less-exalted forms of music. Unsurprisingly it carries the influence of Brahms. Donald Mitchell was snootily dismissive of the work: "The movement's themes, in fact, though not unshapely and not even without some genuine impulse behind their rather ordinary formulation, are innocent of gripping character, actual or potential... their strongly contrasted characters... have too little in common, to the detriment of the movement's unity. But it is not, on the whole, the movement's melody which is its prime weakness; it is, rather, its organization which is defective" (Gustav Mahler: The Early Years). I suppose this is why Donald Mitchell is a musicologist and I'm not; if I had the technical knowledge I probably wouldn't hold the view that he's completely talking out his arse. If I were to characterize this movement then one of the first words I'd use would be "gripping", and as for the organization - well, that depends what you want from the music, I guess. Me, I'm not concerned with formal structure as such because that's simply not what I get from Mahler's music: the sense of flow I've always heard there is to my mind a natural process rather than one based on a given structure - the symphonies as a product of evolution rather than intelligent design, if you like. Obviously the fact that there is a structure is crucial to the success of the music, but all I'm saying is that with Mahler my ears aren't drawn to it in the way they are with, say, Beethoven. Anyway, the point of relevance here is that I really love this piano quartet movement, and for the same reasons that Mitchell dismisses it: "For eighty-five bars it conscientiously and somewhat tediously shuffles interlocking combinations of short motives subtracted from the movement's principle themes... the patterns and formulas are relentlessly pressed home long after their interest qua invention has been exhausted." That must be my inner minimalist responding. I suppose if pressed I'd say this is one of my favourite pieces of chamber music. Ever!

And I only heard it for the first time on the 11th of February of this year (I take notes), the recording in question being one from Christoph Eschenbach and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra (Ondine), a filler for their recording of the Sixth Symphony. I was struck immediately by the hushed opening, which emerges out of nowhere and soon becomes more lyrical and passionate. It's very evocative, but of what, exactly? It's yearning for something, but those "interlocking combinations of short motives" seem to suggest that no relief might be forthcoming - the relentless "patterns and formulas" can never resolve themselves, and despite much drama and that odd violin cadenza, the music eventually fades back to nothing. Maybe it's an unimaginative use of sonata form; or maybe this "failure" is the point. Perhaps an answer would be forthcoming were there further movements (there's a fragment of a Scherzo but I haven't heard it). This was an impressive introduction to the work, and I was bowled over, but one drawback here is the recorded volume, which renders the music rather quiet.

No such fears for the recording by (most of) the Prazak Quartet and Sachiko Kayahara (Praga), which fortuitously appeared on the Shutter Island soundtrack not long after I heard Eschenbach's version (see post). This is a much more vivid recording, you might say a very "in your face" one, and the performance itself is at times very fiery. About half way through there's a strong emphasis on a repeated rhythm that you hardly notice in the Eschenbach; it's an obsessive three-note motif that sounds like it could be a distorted folk dance - am I projecting, or is this also what the Prazaks think of it? Although the music itself may not sound Mahlerian, the concept of folk music bursting in on proceedings most certainly is. Perhaps there's more of the mature composer in here than might be expected. Anyway, the Prazaks' performance overall elevates the piece even higher in my estimation.

At first the performance by Domus (EMI) seems like it may be even more vivid again. (As for the provenance of this recording, it's part of EMI's recently released "Complete works", which I got my hands on from Qobuz - mere moments after discovering they give a 20% discount on almost all new albums for 10 days after their initial release. Deutsche Grammophon's complete Mahler followed a few weeks later - happy times for those of us planning insane projects to listen to lots of Mahler). But the feeling I get from this at the start is that it's perhaps a bit too rushed. It's a good performance and is quite similar to the Prazaks, but the Prazaks really put their souls into it. Comparing the two side-by-side I felt at the time that the Domus was a little bit "just the notes", but in retrospect that's unfair. Comparative reviewing is something I've not done much of, so I must be careful not to fall into the trap of disliking a performance just because it doesn't quite match my preferences. We see this occasionally with some critics, who splutter about how pianist X completely botches the first three semiquavers of bar 43 by playing them too fast, thus ruining the whole movement, the whole album, and indeed the critic's entire afternoon if not week. So, well done, Domus, but no cigar as such.

Finally, there's Gidon Kremer, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen, and Oleg Maisenberg (DG), whose performance is quite different from the other 3. Like Domus, they seem a bit too keen to get started, but it soon settles down. What's perhaps most noticeable here is the recorded sound - there's a bit of space round the instruments, which makes the sound rather more delicate. I wouldn't call the playing itself delicate, but it seems a rather more poised performance. Perhaps you could say Kremer et al. are playing to an audience, and want everything to be clear, whereas the Prazaks are in it for themselves. The odd "folk dance" rhythm I mentioned is rather pointed here too, and in fact rather more dancelike - not as obsessed as the Prazaks' version, which has a touch of the nightmare to it. Kremer et al. seem to run out of steam after this though, or at least don't seem as interested in delving down into the darkness again.

So, does this mean it was a great pity that Mahler never wrote any more chamber music? It's hard to say. After all, his mature compositions don't sound much like this quartet, and - aside from the fact that his symphonies are filled with chamber-like textures - it's hard to imagine what mature Mahlerian chamber music might sound like. Could it all have been as atmospheric and thrilling as this? Would it have been like the symphonies, only smaller? Or something very different? The question of course is moot, and given the circumstances of Mahler's composing career it made sense for him to stick with the large forms that said what he needed to say. Would a Mahler who wrote in as many genres as, say, Brahms be the Mahler we love? Probably not. The piano quartet movement thus stands as a lovely bit of paving on the road not taken.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Would you buy a new CD from this man?

Sometimes it's impossible to shake off a reputation. I was listening to Classic FM yesterday and on The New CD Show David Mellor was remarking that he thought the applause on some Evgeny Kissin Chopin disc was intrusive and all I could think was, Who cares what you think? You're that oily Tory git sacked from the cabinet in 1992 after a series of scandals one of which involved riding some actress while wearing a Chelsea shirt.
Terribly unfair, I know. After all, I can happily listen to the music of murderers like Carlo Gesualdo and anti-Semites like Richard Wagner without batting an eyelid. But David Mellor thinks 52 minutes is too short for a full-price CD? Screw you, Mellor. I'm almost tempted to buy it just to spite you.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nereffid versus Mahler. Episode 1: Prologuey thing

I first heard the music of Mahler 25 years ago in what are probably not typical circumstances. I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and was diligently going through the user's manual when I came to the chapter on how to produce sound. The BASIC command was BEEP (duration, pitch) - basic stuff, indeed. Well, the example tune they gave was the opening theme of the third movement of Mahler's Symphony no.1. Of course this is just a minor-key version of "Frere Jacques", as I soon realised. Exotically, though, the manual described the music as "the bit where the goblins bury the U.S. cavalryman". To this day I don't know what that's supposed to mean - is it maybe a reference to Ken Russell's film? As a further exercise, the manual offered the tongue-in-cheek suggestion "Now program the rest of Mahler's First Symphony". I hope that somewhere, someone did.
I thought no more of Mahler for some time, although the ZX Spectrum did have a significant impact: the theme tune to "Manic Miner" was Grieg's "In the hall of the mountain king", which I found in my father's record collection, which led on to the rest of the Peer Gynt suite and the piano concerto, and then Tchaikovsky's piano concerto, and then, and then... Things, as Rich Hall once said, snowball.
Our story resumes some years later, when I was browsing in the college music library and found Mahler's 1st. "Hmmm, I wonder what this sounds like coming from an actual orchestra rather than a beeping computer..." I was instantly hooked, and sought out the rest of the symphonies. Mahler very rapidly became my favourite composer, and remains so today.
But why? Oh, he just is. Presumably when you listen to your favourite composer's music, your mind creates all these images, associations, feelings, and stories that make it seem much more than just music. Maybe with Mahler it's more than that; I don't know. But his music instantly fitted me like a glove. It's got that just-right quality that Leonard Bernstein memorably talked about with Beethoven, but for me Beethoven's just-rightness and wonderful inevitability are purely musical in nature - the consequence of key relationships, decisions about tempo, note choices, etc. Whereas with Mahler I hardly hear the formal musical concepts at all, just as when you're watching a great film you tend not to notice that its overall story structure is probably pretty much the same as most other films you've seen. Mahler's symphonies are stories, a combination of narrative and idea that I've never heard anywhere else.
I haven't listened to much of Mahler in recent years, and with 2010 being the 150th anniversary of his birth (and 2011 the 100th of his death) I decided it was high time to renew our friendship. But this couldn't be just a case of taking out my faithful recordings (generally, one of each symphony) and listening to them again to remind myself of all the things I love about Mahler. No, that would be way too easy. Instead I decided to take advantage of the fact that my eMusic subscription allows me to get any of Mahler's symphonies (except maybe the Eighth) for little more than, and often less than, one euro. Over the last several months I've been vastly expanding my Mahler collection through eMusic, supplemented with various recognised classic performances that I didn't own. And so begins a lengthy project to listen to many recordings of each of the symphonies and songs, not in a vain quest to find "the best" but to look at Mahler from as many angles as I can, to find new ways of listening and understanding, and to work out what it is I like about the music in the first place.
So join me as I blog intermittently about my Mahler experiences over what will probably be a couple of years (I've ended up with far more recordings than I anticipated). Nereffid versus Mahler: come get some!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jaw-dropping Beethoven

Have you ever wondered what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would sound like if it took 2 hours to perform? No of course not. You are not a crazy person. But Brazilian conductor Maximianno Cobra has wondered about it, in fact he's got a whole philosophy about it. Taking as his starting point the not controversial idea that Beethoven's metronome markings weren't always accurate, Cobra extrapolates this to conclude that not only were they never accurate, but neither is the whole concept of a metronome marking. They must be interpreted metrically, you see, not mathematically. I have no idea what that means, but the end result is - in Cobra's own words - "most of the adopted tempi end up twice as slow as they normally would through their mathematical application". But Maximianno, what justification do you have for doing this? "Justifying the need for this metric reading would carry us too far just now". Oh, okay then. Well, here's Maximianno and his trusty band applying his principles to the end of the 4th movement. This is the Ode to Joy for people who think that "joy" is the feeling you get when swimming 20 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool filled with rice pudding:

Have a listen too to Cobra's Beethoven 7. Or, better yet, don't. You'll lose 81 minutes of your life. That is not a typo. I see from the albums now available on eMusic that his Beethoven 5 just about squeezes onto a CD. You may wonder what Cobra's Bruckner 9 is like. Pah! Not so radical: only 105 minutes, practically racehorse-ish, and a good 17 minutes faster than his Schubert 9. Dear God... his Bach Orchestral Suite no.3 takes over three quarters of an hour.
Of course, maybe Cobra is right, and the performance traditions built up over the last several centuries are wrong, and have always been wrong. I mean, it could happen. One day everyone's happily trundling along at eighth-note = 60 and then wham! Amnesia throughout Europe! The metric system disappears overnight! Next day the orchestras consult their scores, read them mathematically as quarter-note = 60 and suddenly all the music is twice as fast as it should be and nobody notices. God, Roger Norrington's going to be pissed when he finds out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Two highlights of the week

Two things stood out from this week's listening.
First, Peter Sculthorpe, a composer I've known of but whose music I'd not heard. Sculthorpe's from Australia - where women glow and men plunder, of course. A Naxos CD from a few years ago contains 5 of his orchestral works, of which the absolute standout is Earth Cry. Written in 1986, it reflects how, in the composer's words, "We now need to attune ourselves to the continent, to listen to the cry of the earth as the Aborigines have done for many thousands of years". It opens with a solo didgeridoo full of menace and animal noises before a slow and dark string tune comes in, not unlike the sort of thing Alan Hovhaness used to do, only a lot more sinister. Slow brass fanfares and pounding percussion add to the drama, and about halfway through the didgeridoo comes to the fore again, sounding alternately like the pulse of the land and a howling creature. It's a stunning and rather moving effect (though apparently the didgeridoo was only a later addition to the work). Overall, the piece has a visceral impact that reminded me of the first time I heard James MacMillan's Confession of Isobel Gowdie. The rest of the album doesn't reach this level, but it's all worth checking out. Sculthorpe goes on the Watch List.
Completely unrelated music: the piano sonatas of Jan Ladislav Dussek. He's one of my "anniversary composers" that I've been exploring - this year marks his 250th birthday, and in fact 2012 will be the bicentenary of his death. Dussek was a Czech piano virtuoso who toured Europe. I first came across him a couple of years ago in a well-praised recording of some sonatas by Marcus Becker on CPO, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I've now got the three volumes of sonatas recorded by Frederick Marvin for Dorian about 15 years ago. Andreas Staier recorded a couple of Dussek albums a while ago, too. Nothing in particular to say about any of these pieces: you should enjoy these if you like your early Beethoven sonatas, or if you think (whisper it) that piano sonatas generally went downhill after Schubert. Of the man himself, Haydn wrote in 1792 to Dussek's father "you have one of the most upright, moral, and, in music, most eminent of men for a son".
One other thing stood out this week: Carlo Maria Giulini's Mahler 1 with the Chicago Symphony - but that's for a whole other post.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

It's never easy being the eldest son of a genius. Just ask Julian Lennon or Barry Einstein. The very first thing you need to know about Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, even before you know his dates (1710-1784), is that he was Sebastian's favourite and that he didn't seem to have the temperament to live up to his father's expectations. Well, how would you feel if when you were twelve, your dad composed the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier for you? The long and the short of it is that Friedemann never proved as successful as he could have been, having trouble keeping jobs, and he died in poverty, having already sold off his share of Sebastian's inheritance. I think in terms of familiarity he'd rank third among the Bach sons - after Emanuel and Johann Christian but before... uh... Zeppo... But musically, where does he sit? It's hard to say. I mean, any expert will tell you it's hard to say. Sometimes he's definitely a Baroque composer, sometimes a Classical one - within the space of a single composition, indeed. Is this why he's harder to get a handle on than his better-known and more easily characterized brothers? Does his wavering between two styles reflect his personality - honouring his father's legacy while also trying to escape it? To find out, you should see the movie Cry Friedemann, starring Roy Scheider.
So, to the naive Nereffidian ear, what does Friedemann's music sound like? You know what, it sounds like a mix of Baroque and Classical. For every cantata aria that could have been swiped from one of Sebastian's lesser-known works, there's a slightly unsettling Empfindsamkeit keyboard fantasia (see! I know big musicology words!). Most intriguing of all is the first of the 12 Polonaises, which has a certain swing to it and sounds for all the world like it was written by a late-20th-century composer with a love of jazz who decided to write a Baroque pastiche. By and large I find the best of Friedemann's work in the keyboard music, though overall his music can be likened to the proverbial box of chocolates.
If I were to suggest just one album of WF, I would pick two: Maude Gratton on harpsichord (Mirare) and Anthony Spiri on a Steinway (Oehms). Both play a selection of fantasias, sonatas, and fugues, while Gratton also throws in a handful of polonaises.
Listen for yourself: here's an 8tracks mix containing 12 highlights from the albums I've been listening to over the past week.