Thursday, July 21, 2016

Short-Shrifted - A Paean to a Frightening Hungarian


There's usually little risk in unearthing rare music, the worst being disappointment or a racist pop song or two.  In classical music this is largely due to music being a mostly abstract medium and the standard of what music is publishable and worthy of repeat performance high enough to disallow most repulsive lyrics and subject matter, though not so high as to prevent something as wickedly brilliant as Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin from premiering.  Speaking of Bartók, today's Short-Shrifted subject is not only Hungarian but was one of the first defenders of Bartók's music, as well as the work of Kodaly, in the 1900s, ensuring him a place in the history of Hungarian Modernism even if he did nothing else.  We of course wouldn't be talking about him if he was merely a critic, but talking about what we're here for is a double-edged sword.  You see, on one hand we have a lovely violin work on our hands that begs for the internet to uncover more compositions by its author, but on the other hand, the author's other works, and unsettling biography, make searching potentially risky in the realm of psychological damage.


Géza Csáth (1887-1919) was quite a piece of work in both positive and negative ways, starting out on the positive end with a prodigal talent in various fields.  A violinist from childhood, Csáth (the pseudonym of József Brenner) began writing music criticism when he was 14 and wrote the aforementioned support for Bartók and Kodaly in college.  He went into medicine and worked initially in a psychiatric hospital, his experiences informing his novel Diary of a Mentally Ill Woman and leading to his lifelong obsession, a gradually crippling morphine addiction.  During the 1910's he wrote a number of stories under the influence, collected as Tales Which End Unhappy, one of my new favorite titles, and translated in the above book and the Penguin Books collection Opium and Other Stories as part of Philip Roth's excellent Writers from an Unbound Europe series in the '70s.  These stories were highly transgressive and disturbing, probing into the psychology of addiction, sadism and outright evil, perhaps most famously in "Little Emma", a story wherein children enact public executions.  All of this would be one thing if Csáth was as articulate and civil as other transgressive writers like Chuck Palahniuk, but his morphine addiction only worsened as he lost jobs and credibility and eventually was committed to a psychiatric hospital.  He escaped to his home, eventually fatally shooting his wife with a revolver (!), taking poison (!!) and slitting his wrists (!!!).  This, however, didn't succeed in killing him, and he eventually finished the job by taking poison while running from the police (!!!!).  To quote his diary, "In combating myself I can report only one bloody defeat after another."

Heck of a story, though not as ridiculous as the case of Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial strangler who wrote in jail and became a critical darling, his fame prompting an early release and subsequent defense in the face of more stranglings, as if writers were incapable of such acts.  You might be wondering why I'm talking about such horrible people in the first place, and the answer is simple: there's always room for the Death of the Author.  Opera companies around the world don't keep performing Wagner's Ring cycle because he was a megalomaniacal anti-semite, they perform them because they're monumental achievements in the art form and hugely important to music history.  The more you delve into the nitty gritty of artists' biographies the more unpleasantness you uncover, such as Gertrude Stein's support of Fascism and William Burroughs' accidental killing of his wife during an ill-conceived party trick, so why dwell on these things?  Their work is why we keep their names alive in the first place and focusing on that above all else is what keeps their work relevant.  Case in point, Géza Csáth's Paean for violin and piano.



(part included for good measure)

Published c. 1910, around the time Csáth started taking morphine, the Paean (confusingly translated into French as Pean, which is a kind of ermine-type texture used in royal crests, instead of the correct French spelling Péan) appears to be the only published piece of music by Csáth, at least the only one to surface in our time, making him a member of the Sui Generis club of composers with only one published work.  In stark contrast to his prose (and probably for our psychological benefit) the Paean, subtitled a Pastorale on the cover page, is a gentle summer's breeze of a piece, packing a lot of grace and depth into its mere 2'30'' runtime.  While not exactly Modernist the work is somewhat Impressionistic with its extended-tonality chords and modal arpeggiation, or at least very late Romantic in its style.  It's somewhat melancholic for a paean, which is typically a song of exultant religious reverence, such as a hallelujah, leaving the listener to ponder where Csáth's reverence truly lies.  It makes up for its dreamy, moderate tempo with great expressive intensity, especially in the fff con passione near the end.  And who doesn't like a piece that ends with a major-7th chord?  While Csáth's language here certainly isn't ripping off his Modernist admirees there are tinges of the same Hungarian nationalist language that Kodaly would perfect in his most famous works, such as the half-diminished cascade in the con passione measure.  It's all so lovely that I have no choice but to want to see more of his music, but considering Csáth's later life his manuscripts might not be accessible or usable.  The best thing we can do now is to perform this modestly immodest gem at every conceivable opportunity and prove that there is light at the end of a dark and terrifying tunnel.


~PNK

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

SPECIAL CURSIVE PREVIEW: Short-Shrifted - Happy Birthday, Erwin Schulhoff!


One of my favorite pieces to talk about when people say they've seen everything is "In Futurum", which looks like this:


I chattered about it in a Forgotten Leaves article some time ago but it deserves all the reposts it can get.  Everything here is a joke, from the tempo marking of "timely-timeless", the clashing meters and clefs, the fact that there aren't any actual notes, those dang faces...pure genius.  This is at the Dada extreme of the work of Erwin Schulhoff, one of the greatest composers to get his music banned and his person killed by a tyrannical government.  Czech by birth, Schulhoff started at the Prague conservatory under the tutelage of Dvořák when he was only 10 years old, fast becoming a rising star and studying with the likes of Debussy and Reger.  After serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first World War he moved to Germany and would move back and forth from there and Prague throughout his career, securing plenty of prestigious premieres in the '20s.  Schulhoff was an astoundingly diverse composer, his works ranging from Neoclassicism to Dadaism to Jazz-influenced works, among the first of their kind and arguably the best overall of the first half of the 20th century.  Of course, we can't have anything nice for too long, and once the '30s rolled around he found himself in the crosshairs of the Nazi party for his Jewish heritage and Communist sympathies; by 1939 already in trouble with the Czech government for his political leanings, he was forced to perform under a pseudonym when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.  He applied for citizenship in the Soviet Union but was arrested trying to leave the country and was shipped to the Wülzburg concentration camp.  He died in 1942 from tuberculosis, and his works remained suppressed in Nazi-controlled countries, only to be rediscovered in the 60's at the start of the long-term effort to resurrect the music of Jewish composers suppressed, forced into exile or murdered by the Third Reich.  Of all those reborn artists Schulhoff has had the best success among modern audiences, who have responded well to his clever, skillfully wrought and entertaining works, and multiple record labels have recorded scads of his pieces, including some Hot Music -


- a stunning Duo for Violin and Cello, one of the best works in the genre -


- and his Piano Sonata no. 3, one of my favorite sonatas of the first half of the 20th century.


All of these pieces warrant whole articles of discussion but only one Schulhoff work made its way into the inaugural concerts of my chamber group Cursive.  Judging by the piles of performances on YouTube, Schulhoff's Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1927 could be his greatest posthumous success and I can't exactly blame the public and performers for the People's Candidate.  I kind of don't want to talk about it too much because, you know, the market of our performances of the thing will weaken and all that, but there's a good chance that bits and pieces won't overwhet anybody's appetite.  There's a particularly lovely bit that's brief enough to leave the rest of the piece hanging but whetful enough to warrant special attention, the slow movement, the "Aria":




I've been meaning to do a long writeup on what's going on in the piano at the beginning, that off-centered undulation that taps into the depth of dreaming.  There's also something to be said for how the right hand slides gradually down through keys, a trick pioneered by Chopin in his E-minor Prelude and emulated enough times to fill a book.  My favorite bit, through rehearsals and the previous concert, was that moment in the left hand (thankfully repeated later) is the low C major triad followed by a D-sharp minor triad in a higher register, snuffing out profundity in order to leave us wanting more.  But the whole thing is lovely, too:


The whole sonata as well as seven other pieces, and maybe a surprise or two, are available for you to hear this Thursday night at 8:00 at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  Click here for deets and keep a little space in your day for the 122nd birthday of Czechoslovakia's favorite son, or at least my favorite son on this special day.

~PNK

Friday, April 1, 2016

Short-Shrifted - William Baines


In English culture one composer stands for dying young, personally and as a symbol of his generation, more than any other, George Butterworth (1885-1916).  One of the most sensitive and melancholic of the Pastoralists, Butterworth published a handful of song cycles and orchestral pieces before going off to the front of WWI, eventually dying in the Battle of the Somme, his body lost to the war.  His cycle A Shropshire Lad from poems by A.E. Housman, as well as its orchestral epilogue, the Rhapsody, have become musical symbols of the U.K.s "lost" generation of young men lost to the Great War, and his early death at 31 might have given his music some artificial support after his time, though judging by its quality it would have been well-remembered regardless of its author's tragic passing.  Another young death in British composition that has made much less of an impact on its country's psyche is that of William Baines (1899-1922), dead at the much more tender age of 23 from tuberculosis and in many ways a more daring and individual composer than most of his English contemporaries.


My introduction to Baines came from the inclusion of his piece Tides, as much of a posthumous breakout hit as he'll ever get, in the 2002 Rarities of Piano Music festival, an annual nine-day festival of piano rarities at Schloss vor Husum in Germany that has featured some favorite pianists of mine and this blog, such as Marc-André Hamelin and Kolja Lessing.  The Danish record label Danacord has put out 17 CDs of highlights from the festival and Tides made the cut, performed by Jean Dubé, alongside works by Szymanowski, Reger and Ignaz Friedman.  British Impressionism, or rather the Impressionist side of Pastoralism, what I call the post-Elgar British composers such as Vaughan Williams and his ilk, never equaled the evocative dreamscapes of the French Impressionists in the large scale but some individuals tried to go for the gold, such as Frank Bridge in many of his miniatures and the early work of John Ireland, and Baines's music (most of which can be seen in score form here) is the most non-Pastoralist Impressionist work I've seen come from England in its near-total avoidance of British folk influence and commitment to the ambiguous moods of his French predecessors.  Tides has become one of his most popular works because of its near-surrealism, a far cry from the likes of Butterworth, chockablock with juxtaposed scales, Scriabin-esque chord structures, bursts of virtuosity and deep foreboding.  I've always had a soft spot for pieces that treat the sea in a sense of danger (such as Irwin Heilner's creepy song The Tide Rises) and Tides expertly captures the mood of standing on the shore of a vast ocean in the dead of night.  The second movement, "Goodnight to Flamboro", is almost Ivesian in its placement of popular-style music in a pantonal landscape, and why the first movement alone has caught on more than the whole thing baffles me.  I am grateful for anything of his to catch one regardless of which part of it, as nowadays much of his music is available and the many amateur performances of his piano pieces has made him a minor favorite in the New Digital Repertoire, a movement that I'm doing everything I can to further and one that hasn't gotten nearly enough discussion in the mainstream.  This amateur fanbase has produced such a variety of Baines recordings that I can show you this one, a selection from his warmly etched Four Sketches, without breaking any copyright laws:


The Sketches are some of his earliest pieces, written when he was 19 and 20 and showing considerable maturity and thoughtfulness for formative works, a time most composers prefer to forget after they've achieved Tenure Grant Academy status or whatever it is composers get these days.  These years were strangely lucky ones for Baines as he was pulled into the British army in 1918, only to be relieved of his duties because of septic poisoning, obviously the most attractive illness for the Classical music set.  He would continue composing and performing through the aftermath of his sepsis, a disease he never really recovered from, and only a few years later succumbed to the aforementioned TB, the fatal illness of choice by those who want to die wanly and sexily.  While I can't exactly point to any of his pieces as evidence or reflection of his atrocious health (always the most tasteful treatment of another's illness) most of his works are imbued with an arresting sense of loss and distant nostalgia, a very English brand of saudade or dor.  One of the best pieces of his for expressing this is his Twilight Pieces, the first piece, "A Fragment" capturing the quality of fading sunlight in heavy summer air:


The second piece, "Quietude" also takes great pains to never let the chords naturally resolve, a Pastoralist answer to Wagner delaying the tonic until after the fourth or fifteenth hour.  There are a few tricks here that I've never seen in another piece of this time, such as this chord:


Or this little grace note, part of "Quietude"'s moment of physical outburst:


On a more swift, non dolorous note of delivery, here's "The Naiad" from the Three Concert Studies:


I always like those chord progressions where a simple form is chosen and the permutations are either flying farther out from the center or collapsing inwards, as the first half of that main left hand ostinato shows.  Baines also understands that an audience used to more conventional chords will accept any foreign dissonance as long as it moves by quickly enough and has a superficial logic, either with itself or with other harmonies in the phrase.  There were a ton of fairy-folk-inspired pieces by British composers around this time and this is one of the most magical and exciting, rewarding those who can afford the crispest piano to perform it on.  In case you're wondering, no, Baines never finished a full piano sonata, though not for a lack of trying.  Aside from an early, uncharacteristic Symphony that wasn't performed until 1991 (link here, though beware of amateur hour performance) Baines never wrote a "big piece", something that often ends up "cursing" composers after their deaths in the eyes of overly discriminating musicologists with their eyes peeled for analyzable, symphony-length works ripe for dissertationing.  For an example, imagine if Federico Mompou had never written Musica Callada and how much critical attention he would have gotten then.  This attitude was high-order phooey then and is even higher-order phooey now that there's a huge market for classical music outside of the strict confines of concert halls and academic studies.  For my money Baines well earned his place in the canon of British music and his works are gifts that keep on giving intellectual and emotional rewards, and his gradual resurrection through the internet can only be a good thing - an attitude I wish more performers would adopt, if only for the sake of works like these 7 Preludes.  Goodnight, Flamboro and otherwise.


~PNK

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Short-Shrifted - Pierre-Octave Ferroud


There's a saying in Hollywood: "you're only as good as your last picture".  It's an unsympathetic reminder of the fact that most people only value others in so much as what they can do for others and the quality of those actions, and the only way to stay relevant is by a continuous string of quality.  The goal is to create a legacy, a good reputation that ensures that you won't have to keep proving yourself, but nobody knows where legacy's goal line is - which brings us to the ultimate obstacle to creating a legacy, death.  It's always easy to look back fondly on someone's works, especially artists, right after their deaths (such as how this year there'll be a Bowie-shaped hole in every record store), and how rose-colored our lenses become is due to a complicated tangle of factors including the artist's reputation just before their death combined with what it was in the previous years as well as which works entered the popular consciousness most recently.  However, few incidents incite this kind of backward praise than an untimely death or incapacitation, such as how Death to Smoochy never got respectable viewership until after the suicide of lead actor Robin Williams.  This effect is no stranger to Classical composers, though admittedly the niche nature of those who actually follow composers' careers, even back when that was a thing, means that not many of the Short-Shrifted, subjects of my new series on Re-Composing, have gotten the same attention as those in more popular genres.  The most consistently remembered of these are composers whose work or lives were snuffed by Totalitarian regimes and the Nazis, their resurrection part of a large-scale movement in the later decades of the 20th century - the most successful of these were concentration camp composers like Erwin Schulhoff and early Soviet modernists like Roslavets, Mosolov and Lourié.  A scant handful of composers are actually better known for dying young than for any one piece that they wrote, such as the Belgian-born Guillaume Lekeu, dead at 24 from contaminated sorbet and author of the pseudo-famous Adagio pour quatuor d'orchestre, and the thoroughly disappointing William Hurlstone who was at least able to contribute to the distressingly small bassoon sonata rep before his death at 30 from bronchial asthma.  The most dramatic of these has to be Heikki Suolahti, a Finnish composer who died at age 16 after writing the Sinfonia Piccola, a work that fascinated Sibelius (though not myself).  Short-Shrifted aims to praise composers who died well enough before their time that their works quickly fell out of view, possibly never to be appropriately revived, and I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better opener to the series than Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-36).



The above set of pieces for flute is not only one of Ferroud's earliest pieces but also the only piece of his to remain performed in this day and age, a slightly unfortunate case as they're his least challenging and, more importantly, representative works in his oeuvre.  Their universal claim to public domain status, something the rest of his music lacks, has a hand in this as well, and the effect is as if the only piece by Beethoven that got performed was that blasted Minuet in G major.  For a more impressive introduction we have to get both later and a bit goofy:



A disciple of Florent Schmitt, the most outlandish of the Impressionists, Ferroud broke on the Paris scene in the 20's, one of the most exciting places and times to be a composer, and the above piece, Types (1922-24, originally for piano), is as good as any for an unofficial breakout piece.  The piece is a trio of satiric character sketches - an old lothario, a self-important society woman and a frantic businessman - and shows Ferroud's budding language with clarity and flair.  Ferroud was unique among French composers in his ability to synthesize Impressionist harmonies and colors with Neoclassical rigor and acidity, creating works both enchanting and forceful, a difficult feat and a singular achievement in his scene.  These qualities didn't go unnoticed by his peers, among them Maurice Ravel, one of his chief influences.  There's a double-fisted irony in this: a.) Ferroud parodied Ravel's more precious works in the second Type, and b.) they have a common cause of death, effects from car accidents.  However, while Ravel's death was a drawn-out exacerbation of a possibly pre-existing brain condition brought on by a car accident, Ferroud's was the much more immediate effect of decapitation.  While that doesn't quite scale the dramatic death heights of Albéric Magnard (burned along with his house by German invaders in WWI) or Enrique Granados (drowned trying to save his wife from drowning) it's still one for the books and, if I may suggest comical conspiracy, makes a case for him being a victim of necessary peacekeeping between the warring camps of Impressionism and Neoclassicism, as naturally ne'er the two shall meet.

(This recording is too slow; listen to this (if you're in the U.S.) to hear the true potential of the opening movement)

His Symphony in A major (1930) is arguably his masterpiece, a dense blast of extraordinary Neoclassical writing and one of the best symphonies written by a French composer in any time.  Any Neoclassical work walks the rickety tightrope of tasteful irony, trying to acknowledge that the newer old ways are dead and irreverently call back to the older old ways while still maintaining objective beauty and craftsmanship, and Ferroud's Symphony has aged better in this respect than most pieces from this time, keeping the quality high without seeming too stiff or too silly (I'm looking at you, Poulenc).  Among the Symphony's admirers was Prokofiev, who suggested a listening of it to his friend Boris Asafiev (whose sole claim to fame is writing a trumpet sonata nobody wants to play).  Prokofiev was less impressed with Ferroud's 1927 comic opera Chirurgie ("Surgery", of all things) but any comedy about grim subject matter has some intrinsic value and the music, snipped out here for an orchestral suite, has more than enough fine qualities to pique my interest:


The influence of Stravinsky is so obviously apparent in these works as to need little comment but Ferroud's music never feels cheapened by its allegiance to the cream of the crop (unlike some Poulenc pieces which are blatant Stravinsky ripoffs (start at 3:50)...son of a bitch...).  Likewise there is a great variety of moods in his works, such as the lovely opening to his concentrated, subtly orchestrated Serenade (1929), at times a dead ringer for Ned Rorem's early symphonies -


- or his charming-yet-impressive Trio d'anches (1933):

(Sorry if this doesn't work outside the U.S.)

But if there's one medium Ferroud got the most variety out of, and one that seems the most obviously resurrectable on the concert scene, it's his piano works.  I mentioned that Types was originally for piano -


- and as unplayable as it sounds, looks, and is it's clear that Ferroud had high hopes for the instrument's potential.  His piano works encompass the whole of his career and style, sometimes laying his techniques bare for the world to see, such as how the haunting Prelude and Forlane (1922) reveals his ingenuity at blending incongruous scales together to create liquid, novel lines:


Two piano works in particular beg for repeat performances.  The first is Fables, a collection of miniatures that span the whole of Ferroud's emotional range and are able to contain his unique language in a compact, playable style, and the fact that these highly likable quickies haven't been played regularly since their conception in 1931 infuriates me.


The other is the Sonatina in C-sharp minor, his "big piece" for the instrument.  Full-blown sonatas, while never all that popular among the French (despite some excellent piano entries by the likes of Paul Dukas and Vincent d'Indy), had fallen out of fashion during the latter half of la belle époque and sonatinas, once a shallow teaching medium, were totally revitalized as a dynamic platform for invention and charm.  While many countries, notably the Netherlands and Sweden experienced Sonatina Fever (with composers as disparate as Sibelius and Bartók trying their hand at them) the French were particularly deft at them and Ravel, Roussel, Milhaud and Hahn all wrote excellent works in the genre, though the champion was the sadly neglected Maurice Emmanuel at six varied, luscious pieces (now there's an article I need to write).  Ferroud's Sonatina isn't quite as dense as the Symphony but takes a great crack at it and all the Ferroudian hallmarks are here - primitive melodies juxtaposed on illusory arpeggios, earnestness on top of foreboding, and remarkably tasteful virtuosity.


Many of Ferroud's score can be downloaded at his IMSLP page, further proof that we are living in the best world we've ever had right now (except for Trump's existence, of course).  There's such greatness for new players to explore that there's no way to go into it here, but I can leave you with a contrasting pair of works: the Central Park in the Dark-style Foules (Crowds) (1924) and the teenage-conceived Andante Cordial (1919/1926).  Here's to meager vindication of the untimely deceased and hopefully more articles to come.




~PNK

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Benjamin Britten's Young Apollo, op. 16 (1939)


Opus numbers are tricky things - originally created by 17th century publishers to help differentiate works with similar titles and used inconsistently by composers to catalog their own works ever since.  The heyday of opus numbers was the 19th century, especially among Germanic and Russian composers, as its usage largely died out in the 20th century as part of a general shift away from the Old Ways.  The notable 20th century exceptions include Darius Milhaud, whose opus'd works number over 400, as well as the young American composer Carson Cooman who has more than 1130 opus'd works to his name in 20-odd years of composing (including works supposedly written this month!) because of his habit of assigning an opus number to every stray thought that floats through his head.  The main problem with assigning opus numbers is determining what "deserves" a number, as composers often end up leaving opus numbers off of occasional pieces, pieces they don't particularly like or other marginalia.  Occasionally, though, composers assign numbers to works and then withdraw them without reassigning the number to a new work, leaving a hole in their catalog to the dismay of musicologists.  Such is the case with Benjamin Britten and his piece Young Apollo, assigned an "op. 16" and then suppressed immediately after its premiere in 1939.  Britten left a number of works on the shelf without opus numbers, such as the Temporal Variations and Two Insect Pieces for oboe and the unfinished Sonatina Romantica for piano, but Young Apollo is the only work with an opus number to get the shaft, and after hearing it I really can't imagine why...well, maybe I can but it's still insufficient.


Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and scored for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, Young Apollo is sprightly, diabolical fun.  Starting with a several-octave drone and some of the most exciting scale-running I've heard in a while, things get of to a Lydiany start in the solo quartet and then bounce down a cobblestone road in search of a pot of gold.  This is Britten at his most stereotypically Neoclassical, ironically hanging onto simple riffs and overlapping major and minor chord permutations in an effort to create that brand of intellectually-intriguing unease Neoclassical composers of the time loved to dead-horse-beating levels.  It's also Britten at his most self-explanatory, an attribute he wasn't totally alien to but most notable here, a vast simplification from his Piano Concerto, op. 13 written the year before.  That isn't to say there isn't craftsmanship and atmosphere here, as there certainly is, it's just that there's little depth and variety on a nuts-and-bolts level.  It's an interesting case of what is clearly an Occasional Piece in every sense of the word lasting longer than its role would normally allow it - it's too repetitive to be a full overture but hardly a bagatelle.  Britten felt it wasn't doing him any favors regardless of however we wish to designate it and it remained unpublished until after his death, proving once again that if there's anything publishers are good at it's ignoring the wishes of their authors.  Luckily for us we can get works like this out of their disdain for the purest sense of Authority.  More on that in an upcoming penny dreadful...

~PNK

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Jean Barraqué's Sonata for Solo Violin


There's a trend among French composers that one could see as a blessing in disguise - many French composers end up writing few works but take great care in writing them, sacrificing prolificness for craftsmanship.  This obviously doesn't afflict too many French composers that it's a big problem - just look at Darius Milhaud and his 400+ opus'd pieces - but I can't help but find it a bit troubling.  The French "tradition" of self-suppression and -destruction has many cases, from Ernest Chausson to Henri Dutilleux, and most famously Paul Dukas with only 13 pieces published in his lifetime, leaving everything written before 1891 unpublished and abandoning or destroying many later works.  Another notable case is Maurice Duruflé, whose completed opus'd compositions only reach op. 14.  The most extreme case, however, is that of Jean Barraqué (1928-73), one of the most enigmatic and difficult figures of French Classical music.

Barraqué was a highly meticulous, self-critical artist, so much so that when he completed his large, unwieldy Piano Sonata (1950-52) -


- he decided to really, really declare it his de facto OPUS ONE and suppressed/destroyed all his earlier works.  He was a devout serialist and took the Boulez-Piano Sonata no. 2 approach to composition in his Sonata, that being the mood of running through a spanking machine.  A stir was caused the year of its publication when the critic André Hodeir, in his book Since Debussy, declared the then-unperformed Sonata the greatest piano sonata since Beethoven, a pretty absurd claim for a piece by a composer with only two premiered works under his belt and the most insane sonata since Boulez waiting for someone to mistakenly stick their hand in looking for a candy bar.  This of course caused laughter and skepticism, but his later accomplishments have gained some serious praise from critics and adventurous concertgoers.  His use of multiple, unrelated tone rows in a piece, what he called "proliferating series", makes his brand of serialism not only somewhat unique but doubly difficult to analyze, as new rows are gradually insinuated into pieces rather than clearly announced, though I've often found that composers who are terribly worried about an audience of theorists crying foul if they can't easily pick apart every formal detail of their works are often composers with little to no musical personality.  That being said Barraque's music is highly combative and thorny, though at times highly compelling in its drama and overwhelming sense of doom, such as in the pieces from his unfinished Death of Virgil cycle like Les Temps Restitué (1956-68):


His biography doesn't lessen the doom much, as he was involved in a car accident in '64 and his apartment caught fire in '68, not to mention his frequent health problems and sudden death at age 45.  Altogether only 10 completed Barraqué works survive to this day, and it would have only been presumed to be 9 if today's piece hadn't been found among Barraqué's papers less than a decade ago.


Written sometime in the late '40's, the Sonata for Solo Violin was long considered one of the approximately 30 works Barraqué wrote and destroyed prior to the Piano Sonata, excluding a short piano piece titled Retour that escaped into a 2009 anthology by Bärenreiter.  The violin Sonata was discovered around the same time and is available on special order from Bärenreiter, though you apparently have to leap through some asking-nicely hoops to get a copy.  This is a way of saying I couldn't find the score for this review, though from this excellent performance we can suss out a good feeling for the piece without the physical notes.  In contrast to the slamming despair of the Piano Sonata and some other Barraqué works, the Sonata for Solo Violin is a playful, charming piece, still serial and jagged but far more manageable and sly, kind of like Giselher Klebe's Sonata for Solo Violin no. 2 (now there's a composer I need to talk about).  These kinds of pieces are all about turning on a long series of dimes with the skill of a mountain goat, the drama largely drawn from snippets of ideas colliding with one another, forcing the performer on as many toes as they can muster.  If done well the playfulness shines through and the performer here, Rachel Field, clears all the hurdles with style and passion.  I'm not sure what the opposite of not letting a clown be serious would be, but it seems that this fine-'n'-fun Sonata was repressed because, or at least I'd like to think so, it wasn't a serious enough a statement for Barraqué to let it out of the box.  Whatever the true reason it's no outrageous claim to say that there's a lot about Barraqué that we may never understand, but at least we don't have to let him stomp on any piece of his that may garner a smile.  Especially since he's dead now.

~PNK

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Alberto Ginastera's Impresiones de la Puna


Maybe I'm a philistine.  Scratch that, I am a philistine, albeit one with a crippling need to soak up classical music's enormous pile of trivia like a derange sponge.  That being said, in my mind Alberto Ginastera is the best composer South America has ever produced - he was both nationalistic and wildly original, pushed personal and international boundaries multiple times in his career, and synthesized Argentina's musical soul with classical modernism better than anyone could have dreamed of.  See?  Only a philistine could be that hyperbolic.  What is undeniable is the many phases his compositional style went through, from folk/classical syncretism ("Objective Nationalism") to fists-to-the-keys Neoclassicism ("Subjective Nationalism") and finally into the Avant-Garde beyond ("Neo-Expressionism"), and that first, still-the-most-performed period produced a handful of works that were doomed to Ginastera's dustbin.  Unlike Boulez's Psalmodies, however, today's piece, Impresiones de la Puna, made it to print, though it didn't stay in print for long.  The venue was Instituto Interamericano de Musicología, an organization I haven't talked about since my Harold Brown article but one more than worthy of lengthy discussion.  The Instituto was part of a big push in the 40's and 50's to promote modern classical composers from all Americas across all Americas, the last time that U.S. listeners and performers had access en masse to Latin American classical music.  The Instituto's scores were disseminated through a Boletín and the Impresiones appear in the 1942 issue, though they were written in 1934.  Ginastera was only 18 when he wrote them, tying them with his Piezas Infantiles for piano as the earliest surviving pieces in his oeuvre, and while I understand why they weren't considered worthy enough to get an opus number they're really dang good for music written by a teenager, even more so for coming from a country still struggling to find its international artistic stature at the time.


Ginastera's first major influence was Impressionism, most explicitly seen in his opus 1, the ballet Panambi (1934-37), begun around the same time the Impresiones were finished.  There was a lot to draw from in this area, as de Falla and Albeniz were still riding high at this point and the French Impressionists had a history of drawing from Spanish and Latin American folk music.  What helps set the Impresiones apart is the Puna part, the Puna being a grassland area in the Andes, showing Ginastera's hometeam advantage.  The ensemble is the always welcome flute and string quartet (very Impressionistic) and the piece is cast in three short movements.  The first, "Quena" ("Flute") is a barren, lonely improvisation that starts with a very Fratres-esque harmonic cell in the strings, an A-minor triad sliding through G minor while the cello holds a distant F against the viola's distant E:


The flute is left alone in the middle of the piece, surging through sophisticated, melancholy modes as if there were no other people for hundreds of miles.  The second movement, "Canción" ("Song"), is a slowly-lapping barcarolle in G minor featuring some deftly placed harmonics and a mature restraint unlike most 18-year-old composers can manage.  Of particular note is a horripilative passage where C and F harmonic minor scales plane across an E-flat pedal:

Ultimately the song slinks out on a major resolution that rubs shoulders with the "Coffee" dance from The Nutcracker.  The last movement, "Danza" ("Dance", like anybody needed to be told that), features the first glimpses of Ginastera's long, fruitful relationship with Argentinian dance rhythms, though not the percussive clusters that made them so fresh in his breakout Danzas argentinas, op. 2 (1937).  This is classic, El Amor Brujo-style hispanic dance material, and though it's possibly the least original of the set that doesn't mean it isn't really fun:


While there are a number of professional recordings to choose from I'm glad that there were several live performances on YouTube to choose from, so many so that the one I picked was really good in spite of its overly wet acoustics.  The Impresiones have a great advantage in how they are both fine additions to the flute chamber rep and not all that hard to perform, making them a perfect choice for collegiate recitals, not that I ever heard these live in the six years I was in higher education.  If you've got a flute and four string buddies give them a practiced whirl, proving Ginastera wrong for the good of the rep.

~PNK