Friday, December 25, 2015

A Carol for my Grandparents

In my research for my "12 Works of Christmas" articles I came across many pieces and composers I'd never heard of before, and one of the more intriguing figures I discovered was Harold Samuel (1879-1937).  Samuel wasn't really a composer, at least not a full-time one, but was a very active and highly respected British pianist, one of the first to play Bach's works extensively in the 20th century.  His Bach knowhow was so extensive that he had all of Bach's keyboard works memorized, something one prepares for with little time for anything else, though through that he did compose a number of songs and small instrumental pieces.  That doesn't mean anybody knows about them, as the usually authoritative Grove Music Online had one sentence on his composition: "He was also a minor composer."  Well, it's hard to be anything but minor in the face of contemporaneous British masters like Howells, BaxBridge, Ireland, Moeran, Grainger, Delius and Baines writing the crap out of piano and vocal music at the time.  IMSLP had a handful of songs written by him and a piano set, Two Sketches, which caught my eye for more reasons than one.  The first sketch, "Campden Hollow", is a haunting and nostalgic elegy for the English countryside that, while not necessarily groundbreaking, does have a chord or two I've never heard before (and I might get to it eventually, along with the songs).  The second piece had a more timely nature:

Written on Christmas Day, 1925, "A Carol" is a good example of very active piano writing that doesn't get in the way, featuring a babbling brook of thirds in the middle voices that compliment the melody rather than overwhelming it.  The tune is an original and is in the tradition of the best up-tempo Christmas carols - that is, ones in compound meters like "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella" and the "Sussex Carol".  The harmonies aren't new per se but they are deeply felt, such as that heart-resounding addition of the G-flat in bar 9 and the incredibly delicate shift to E-minor on the third page.  It's a piece that's so self-explanatory and apt for the season it's a shame it isn't better known, as it'd be a welcome addition to just about any Christmas concert.  I made a recording myself for this year and am presenting it as a gift to my Grandparents, who are eternally generous and kind and I don't get to see nearly as often as I should because of the thousand-mile distance between us.  Here's to a Merry Christmas to yours, mine and ours, wherever they may be.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 12. Witold Lutosławski's 20 Polish Christmas Carols

For my last article of the 12 Works of Christmas series I wanted to go out with a bang, something that would really encapsulate the Season of Giving.  When I think generosity and Christmas music I think of those big ethnomusicological carol sets, like the ones by Joseph Canteloube and Béla Bartók.  This Christmas Eve all our wishes will be answered with the greatest carol set of all - Witold Lutosławski's 20 Polish Christmas Carols.

I don't know if I've mentioned this but Lutosławski is one of my classical music heroes.  In my opinion he was the only composer to turn Stalin-era restrictions into great art (as in his Symphonic Variations and Symphony no. 1) while still working under those rules, and after the Stalin years ended he was at the forefront of the avant-garde in ways that were both groundbreaking and comprehensible to wide audiences (such as the stunning Mi-parti).  I first discovered Lutosławski's works, both the Stalin-era stuff and his later stuff, in high school, and my mind was permanently blown, and to this day I've yet to find works by Polish composers or others from the time that approach his orchestrational flair or his dramatic sensibilities.  The carols were written in the mid-40's, dead center of his Stalin period, and are some of the richest music to come from Eastern Europe at that time (or ever, really).  I hadn't heard any of these carols (one of the perks of perusing old carol collections) and each setting is highly creative and charming, capturing all the wonder and intimacy of the season while raising a few eyebrows in the process.  For reasons one can only find baffling the Carols are very rarely performed, only receiving a recording in the 2000's not catching nearly as much traction as they should have since.  The orchestral version has some of the most sophisticated orchestration to ever be dedicated to Christmas music and as of this writing there's only one video'd performance up on YouTube, and a selection at that.  Obviously greater efforts need to be made to get the likes of the Northwest Boy- and Girlchoirs to team up with the likes of the Seattle Symphony to get these carols performed.  Will you like every carol?  It's a surprise, like each one being a little gift.  I'm hoping everybody has a Merry Christmas tonight and tomorrow, and that we can all celebrate the Christmas cheer in the face of Stalinist pograms, just like Lutosławski.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 11. Percy Grainger's Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol

In my review of Ivor Gurney's Carol of the Skiddaw Yowes I mentioned that British Pastoralist composers were well-suited to reviving old Christmas carols and recomposing them with craft and gusto.  While the Gurney was hecks good and the Bax that I couldn't find a recording for is really hecks good, today we're looking at probably my favorite Christmas-themed piano piece, Percy Grainger's Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol.

For those who didn't spend most of their Christmases in rural England, Mummers plays are folk plays put on by troupes of amateur actors in small towns.  The tradition goes back centuries and is still kept alive by awesome people but after the first World War the troupes largely died out.  It might have been a consideration of preserving this dying tradition that inspired Grainger to set this carol (not to be confused with the "Sussex Carol"), transcribed by the seminal folk song collector Lucy Broadwood, as part of his British Folk-Music Settings series, though I'd think that above all Grainger saw its inherent tunefulness and potential for rich harmonies.  Grainger's extended tonality and part-writing here is unbelievably sumptuous and yearning, able to draw a full orchestra from the piano and requiring enormous sensitivity from the performer.  The close proximity of the tune to Grainger's clustered chord voicings adds another difficulty to the performance, especially when it buries itself in the middle of the tenor range in the second verse.  Every Graingerian trick is in play, from hyper-specific tempo shifts to imitate human singing inconsistencies to passionate added grace notes and a generous helping of fermati.  While it's one of the most solemn Christmas pieces around it also instills great peace in the listener, and Penelope Thwaites knows how to instill peace like nobody's business.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 10. Sébastien de Brossard's Symphonie de Noël

It's an understatement that Baroque music rarely gets featured on these blogs, as in point of fact Baroque music has never been featured on this particular blog - the closest I've gotten to that is Unico Wilhelm von Wassenaer's Concerti Armonici and those were Late Baroque at best.  Luckily for this series I found a Baroque piece that fits the bill, and because of my lack of experience with Baroque music I hadn't heard of the piece or its composer until only yesterday.  Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730) was a composer, theorist and collector of manuscripts and books on music, and much of his surviving music appears to be sacred and secular vocal music, a genre we're not touching on today in the least.  Instead of his usual fare today we're looking at a seeming contradiction in terms - a Symphonie de Noël that's only three minutes long and is written for only three voices.

Back in the quite olden days a "symphony" was usually a short instrumental piece that was part of a larger work, and there was so much variance in what a symphony could be that the term was largely interchangeable with other formal terms.  This Symphonie de Noël carries a subtitle: "Joseph est bien marie", or "Joseph is married", though I'd be hard pressed to tell you where exactly in the music I can find anything Christmassy.  Like many instrumental pieces of the time the Symphonie is scored for two equal treble voices and a basso continuo, and in an original score bass line might carry figured bass markings (I'm pretty sure this isn't an original manuscript from the time).  While there is an obvious hierarchy with the treble voices the lines overlap and intertwine, the second voice often mirroring the first in such a way as to get higher than it, a common feature in music of this era and one that lends the piece a bit of charm.  The likability of the piece, while perhaps not apparent from looking at the score, is evident when performed by people who value zest in life, as do these performers (Ernst Stolz, recorder 1; Ernst Stolz, recorder 2; Ernst Stolz, viola da gamba; Ernst Stolz, organ).


Monday, December 21, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 9. Ivor Gurney's Carol of the Skiddaw Yowes

It's a bit odd that America loves Christmas so much but there's next to nothing in the way of serious recompositions of old carols for voice and piano in the American art song rep, save for John Jacob Niles' lovely setting of "I Wonder as I Wander", which isn't Christmassy in the least but still gets played around this time of year.  My research has found that the two best sources of classical music rejuvenating old carols are France and England, with both countries making a big effort in the first part of the 20th century to collect folk songs, bringing many fine melodies and poetry to light.  Folk music revivalism was central to England's Pastoralist movement, with guys like Holst, Grainger and even later Neo-Classical composers like Britten rewriting ancestral tunes to fit their unique languages.  England also takes Christmas pretty seriously, and at the intersection of these cultural forces we find some excellent Pastoralist Christmas music, such as Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter, Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony and Arnold Bax's A Christmas Carol, a song that I adore and really really wanted to write about but couldn't find a good recording of to use.  In searching for suitable replacements I remembered about Ivor Gurney, an important figure in the British art song canon whose career was stifled by chronic mental health issues and an early death from tuberculosis after composing almost nothing for nearly a decade.  He wrote hundreds of songs using a wide variety of sources and his musical language is as nuanced and sensitive as anything from his contemporaries, making me wonder why most of his instrumental music (which is just as good as his songs from what I was able to find) is so hard to get a hold of..  For our purposes one of his songs in particular is proper to mention, his Carol of the Skiddaw Yowes.

You might be wondering what a yowe is, much less how a yowe could be skiddaw.  "Yowe" is an archaic spelling of ewe, and Skiddaw is a mountain in the Lake District in North West England, a popular vacation spot and home to a number of poets in the 19th century such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.  While the "Lake Poets" were mostly active in the early 19th century the author of this song's poem, Edmund Casson (not Ernest as it says at the top) published in the 1900's and '10's and is so obscure that the only detailed information I was able to find on him came from a listing for one of his books on AbeBooks, which you might recognize as not being an encyclopedia.  In its original published form it was called "Carol of the Skiddaw Shepherds" and Gurney's title change is interesting not only for putting an archaic word in the title but also shifting the perspective slightly from the shepherds (the obvious subject of the poem) to the sheep, perhaps to strengthen the connection of Christmas with the agnus dei.  Gurney's language is pure Pastoralism, rife with added-note chords, sophisticated counterpoint and passages seemingly written in the hirajoshi mode commonly heard in Japanese shamisen music.  Unlike many shepherd-based carols I've seen Gurney keeps the tempo up, not wasting any of our time and setting the harmonic flow at a fast enough speed to massage the inner ear without stewing in dissonances.  It's a lovely addition to the Christmas song rep, gently flowing and imbued with a kind of motherly concern in dark days.  I hope that if anyone sees sheep wandering around alone this holiday season they'll try to keep them safe and warm.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 8. Josef Matthias Hauer's Zwölftonspiell (Weihnachten 1946)

More than two years ago I wrote about the much-wished-we-heard-more-of-his-stuff Josef Matthias Hauer, a uniquely charming figure in the Second Viennese School, and his zwölftonspiele, or "twelve-tone games".  After tinkering with various methods of writing dodecaphonically without sacrificing natural musical logic, Hauer found his favorite form, the zwölftonspiel, wherein an ordered twelve-tone row is ruminated upon in all its various permutations without worrying about themes, dramatic structure or most other constraints of normal composition.  These pieces were usually no more than a few minutes long and as such Hauer wrote about a thousand of them for various instrumental combinations including solo piano, bringing us to Christmas.  My favorite of these zwölftonspiel is the Zwölftonspiel (Weihnachten 1946), one of the most touching of all serialist pieces and so precious as to melt on your earlobe when it lands.

The form couldn't be simpler, or rather more nonexistent: the row is introduced and Hauer riffs on it in five variations.  The variations have no arc within themselves but rather allow the arc present within an otherwise static sequence of notes emerge, a feat in itself.  What's so remarkable is how memorable each of the variations is and how each of them equally compliments the row in such different ways, as well as evoke such a great sequence of moods (dread, wonderment, focus, frustration, release) - the mark of an expert tone jeweller.  It's also notable for being exactly as long as it needs to be, and you don't need any writer to tell you how much of a problem that can become.  It's the one piece of Hauer's I'lll remember until I die and should be included in every pianists' Christmas rep, if only to add a strange interlude to any concert in need of one - which could be every Christmas concert, come to think of it.  And like much of the most assured of experimental pieces it isn't afraid to end on a smile.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 7. Ferruccio Busoni's Nuit de Noël

Ferruccio Busoni is one of a handful of composers one might call "cult" composers, ones whose music has the power to perplex and even repel the mainstream classical audience but have passionate followers for just that power.  A singular figure in Italian music, Busoni's style morphed from fine late Romanticism to a strange but assured stretching of the definition of tonality, omnivorous in its influences and demanding a great deal from performers and listeners alike.  Despite being largely enamored of Bach, a noted genius of absolute music, Busoni's works were frequently colorful and exotic, such as his Indian Diary in piano and orchestral versions, and among his more programmatic music the Nuit de Noël (1908) is one of his most effective and memorable.

Despite Busoni never being aligned with the likes of Debussy and Ravel, Nuit de Noël is an Impressionist piece throughout, employing tricks like planing fifths right off the bat.  The use of these techniques is Debussyian in several aspects, such as an enigmatic countermelody in the bass, slow trills right out of one of Debussy's water pieces, horn-like chord bursts in the tenor register, and turns so subtle one can only know them to be Debussyian while never putting them into words.  Heck, it even shares Debussy's main publisher, Durand & Bros.  Of course, Debussy would never break his own rules as much as Busoni does, relying on striking shifts in harmony, such as blurring the cascading fifths into a warbly off-minor key with a resounding bass pedal, to imbue the piece with a distant wonder very apt for Christmas night.  It's one of his most immediately beautiful pieces, needing no explanation but containing sumptuously unanswerable questions.  In lieu of Marc-André Hamelin's perfect recording, unavailable on YouTube, here's Roland Pöntinen's nearly perfect one instead - and what better playing could you ask for at this time of year or any other?


Friday, December 18, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 6. Marcel Dupré's Variations sur un Noël

As the organ and religious music go hand in pedal you'd think there'd be piles of great Christmas-themed music, though I wasn't able to find as much (in the formal classical sphere) as I'd like.  One piece I'd love to show you guys but couldn't find a recording of on YouTube is Gardner Read's Chorale-Fantasia, op. 50, based on "Good King Wenceslas" and morphing that old chestnut with wicked modern harmonies and dense organ sonorities.  I found a good replacement piece in the Variations sur un Noël, op. 20 by Marcel Dupré, one of the most famous members of the great French organ tradition.  

Dupré was a disciple of Cesar Franck through and through, stretching tonality as far as it will go through intertwining, highly chromatic counterpoint and gnarly contrasts.  The theme might have a different name in France but I know it as "Now the Green Blade Riseth" and it gets a very sophisticated treatment here:

The chromaticism kicks in with the first variation, rolling and rambling and painting the town red.  It's a good example of harmonic shifts that wouldn't sound nearly as good played at a slower tempo but sound great whipped past at ear-massage speed.  When the piece does slow down we get to hear the haunting third variation, a canon at the octave:

This smashes right into planing dissonances:

It's not often that organ music aims to shock, so moments like this certainly stand out in the rep.  Other moments of inspiration come in the form of a triple canon at the fourth and fifth:

The rest is best left for you to discover, like extra presents hidden behind other presents, and the onus remains on me to find a way to show you the Gardner Read Chorale-Fantasia in recording form.  We're halfway there, aren't we?  Better make the green blade speedeth to the next article!  (sorry)


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 4. Ernő Dohnányi's Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song

I've mentioned before how easy it is to forget, what with today's pluralism and temporal distance from the days when Schoenberg's music was considered shocking, just how progressive the great progressive composers of the early 20th century were in comparison to their contemporaries.  The various movements of the Second Viennese School, Expressionism, Futurism and others created music so exotic and caustic to the sensibilities of the time that it's hard to see it logically growing out of what came before it, and its ultimate influence on what was to come later meant that many composers whose work was more naturally progressive were called conservative, whether or not that was the case.  Ernő Dohnányi is a great example of this, a man who musically "grew up" in the late Romantic era and whose music builds off those sensibilities and not those of the Avant-Garde tendencies of his day.  His name mainly rests upon his highly pianistic piano music, difficult yet tasteful and harmonically fine, as well as his brilliant orchestral suite Symphonic Minutes.  This series gives me the chance to talk about one of my favorite pieces of his, the Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song, deftly blending the folk roots of Christmas's traditions and wintry soundscapes.

There's a historical significance in the "pastorale" title, as the Baroque pastorale was a lilting melody over a static bass line, often two instruments in thirds and in 6/8 time, a style that Dohnányi copies with a bit of pianistic imagination.  Especially creative is how a countersubject emerges in the tenor voice in a 2/4 meter against the 6/8, as such:

This winds down elegantly enough until a "B" section begins, swirling 16ths up and down a perfect fifth arpeggio, imitating the howling winds that everybody wants to imagine don't exist in Winter but somehow seem romantic under Dohnányi's hands:

The "B" section also includes the most difficult effect to execute, a variation on the melody pinging in the thumb of the right hand in a 16th-note blizzard:

The whole piece has a great emotional surge that many Christmas pieces are either too scared to attempt or fly off the bombastic handle.  There's a lesson in there - Christmas should never be about flying off the handle, nor should we be afraid of reconnecting with family.  That's cheesy enough of a sentiment, right?  I think Dohnányi would be happy either way.


Monday, December 14, 2015

The 12 Works of Christmas - 3. Thomas Adès's Fayrfax Carol

You'd be hard pressed to find a contemporary composer with more swift and total a rise to glory as Thomas Adès.  He had scored a multi-CD contract with EMI, a rare feat for any classical composer, while still in his 20's and his works keep getting high profile premieres and tons of acclaim.  I've been a big fan of his for years, ever since I heard stuff like Asyla and Traced Overhead as an undergrad, and his solo piano CD is among my favorites, introducing me to the works of Alexei Stanchinsky, György Kurtág and Niccolò Castiglioni.  His music hits that triumphant sweet spot between unique technical achievements and audience appeal, featuring advanced stuff like bizarre meters, exquisite arrhythmic overlays, microtonality in accessible, entertaining packages, and this Christmas season is as good enough a time to feature his preciously surreal Fayrfax Carol.  I wasn't able to find a full score for the piece but I do have a watermark-heavy first page to give you...because it's Christmas.

If you squint enough you can see how the basic melody is used to create a cascading canon, sliding the harmony around like water droplets melting off an icicle (always the first image that comes to mind, I'm sure).  The effect is richly modal, actually highly reminiscent of Michael Nyman's music to the films of Peter Greenaway in its harmonies and line interplay, though much less bombastic.  The "B" section is more like standard hymn material, a simple melody lilting across a mostly static lower register, though not without some surprising harmonic shifts.  The "A" section returns with deeper fervor and sadness and everything returns to the hushed, hallowed mood of the best Christmas music.  I'd also check out January Writ in a couple weeks.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Autumnal Classics - Rued Langgaard's Symphony no. 4, "Fall of the Leaf"

POP QUIZ: name three Danish symphonists!


OK, that's might not be the easiest task.  The general public would most likely only know Carl Nielsen, and only chuckleheads like myself could name two others: Niels Gade (the grandpappy of Danish classical music) and Rued Langgaard, a man who had the misfortune of being an individualistic Danish composer at the same time Nielsen was pushing the boundaries of the Danish musical establishment, and as history repeatedly says we can only have one artist from a country that hasn't been a superpower recently be represented in the global arts canon.  Langgard doubly suffers in that he kept on not fitting into a niche long after all the cool kids had found their clubs in the annals of music history, and his music has taken on the attribute of "eccentricity" among many critics.  You know who else was eccentric?  Percy Grainger, and who's laughing at the genius behind The Warriors now?  Nobody, that's who!  So why not give Langgaard and his significant contribution to the Danish symphony a shot?  Well, where does one start?  He wrote 16 of the things, each one more colorfully named than the last with subtitles like "Memories of Amalienborg", "Ixion" and "Deluge of the Sun".  Luckily there's a heck of a gateway to his work, and it's the same gateway I had - his Symphony No. 4, "Fall of the Leaf" (1916).

More than any other Autumnal piece, Langgaard's Symphony manages to capture the complexity and intensity of human psychology in the throes of the most volatile season of the year.  Langgaard's music is Wagnerian in its scope, drama and mystical philosophy, yet as concentrated and immediately visceral as the work of Carl Ruggles, fully poising him to plunge into the deepest psychological valleys of a dying, ancestral landscape.  Cast in several continuous movements, "Fall of the Leaf" thunders its opening, "Rustle in the Forest", with resonant clashing, a brassy E-flat minor chord punctuated by a C-flat major chord.  Any kind of blow-by-blow or analysis after that wouldn't do a shred of justice to the symphony's hairpin turns of character and key and stunning moments of inspiration.  For example, I could try to analyze the moment at 1:45 where the strings angrily gallop across disjointed sus-chord arpeggios towards electrified, opposite-keyed brass trills while the timpani tries to break his mallets in fortissimo abandon, but you'd really have to hear it to know what I mean when I assure you that I've backed up to hear that one bit more times than I've been able to count.  Words also can't fully express how worthy the theme of the next main section, "Glimpse of Sun", is of a lost piece by that Gerald Finzi guy I mentioned a few weeks ago.  In case you were wondering if anything in this post would sound like Petrouchka then I'm pleased to let you know that the "Thunderstorm" is pretty reminiscent of the evening carnival scene from that, at least in a couple of bits, as well as "Mercury" from The Planets

 It's around here where the sections start dovetailing, as Langgaard knows any good psychological journey has many u-turns and reprises.  Also, check out that bit at 11:00 where trumpets and clarinets laugh at the audience while the strings take a few sharp turns on their Sunday drive.  Also worth noting is the icy sus-chord at the beginning of the "Tired" section (12:-ish) that chills a heck of an oboe solo.  Langgaard remembers the "rule of three", the most economic number of times one can repeat an artistic motive for it to be recognized as a pattern, and the most volcanic restatement of the "Rustle in the Forest" material occurs in the "Despair" section, a very Wagnerian piece of thematic interlinking.  Not so Wagnerian (but evidently Langgaardian) is the following tranquillo section where the strings pull on a loose sweater thread and reveal a gorgeous, glassy melisma followed by an oboe/harp duet, presumably composed with an infant defunte in mind.  This section is actually the beginning of a happy end, as the orchestra major-key's its way into "Sunday Morning (The Bells)", featuring "bells" of alternating F whole tone and B major triads on top of "bells" of alternating A-flat major and D whole tone triads, etc.  Then despair wins, because we can't have anything nice for too long in these increasingly frozen times.

OK, this might be right at the top of my not-really-real Top 10 Best 4th Symphonies list right next to Walter Piston's.  There's a lot to like here, even headbang to, and there are so many surprising ideas in play that the piece could conceivably be well enjoyed in 30-second increments.  I'm so glad that this was my introduction to Langgaard's work and I'll probably have to return to him in a full article, but this is more than enough to sate us for the end of the year.  And I'll bet you guys thought this series was going to be too dang quiet.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Autumnal Classics - Preludi Autunnali by Gian Francesco Malipiero

Popular culture has an unfortunate pattern of trying to filter whole artistic scenes into single, attractive figures, such as how Jackson Pollack is the only abstract expressionist and Ang Lee is the only Chinese filmmaker.  In that vein you can count on the bulk the Classical audience to assume that Ottorino Respighi was the only Italian composer of his time to write instrumental music, but that couldn't be less true if they also claimed he composed underwater.  It's certainly true that opera was the dominant medium in Italian Classical music during the whole of the 19th century, the era in which many people believe the whole Classical tradition parked its trailer and cracked a brew, but once the 20th century rolled into view there was a thriving scene of Italian composers trying to revive instrumental music to the prominence it held in their homeland in the days of Vivaldi and Pergolesi.  Once again we can thank the "Everything Old Is New Again" attitudes of performers and record producers in the 80's onward for renewing the public's interest in figures such as Alfredo Casella, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Giuseppe Martucci, Franco Alfano, Leone Sinigalia, Amilcare Zanella, Marinetti and all his wacky Futurist buddies, and today's composer, Gian Francesco Malipiero. Highly regarded in the first half of the century and possessing such creativity and work ethic to extend his career from the mid-1900's to the early '70's, not to mention his invaluable work in editing the works of Renaissance and Baroque Italian composers, Malipiero was an unmatched creative figure that would have left much more of an impression had his works seen the light of concert halls outside of his native country and had tastes not shifted away from his style near the end of his life.  Malipiero is both refreshing and vexing to musicologists, as his music didn't conform to one voice that lasted the bulk of his career, rather mutating and sharpening as he grew older and wiser; trying to categorize his work reveals how tricky it can be to embrace a "change is good" outlook on art, especially when you've got theses to finish.  That isn't to say that his style is untrackable, though, as its easy to see the impression that the introduction of the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky left on his work in the 1910's and '20's.  Case in point: Preludi Autunnali (1914), one of his most wholly successful piano works.

Impressionist composers had a real knack for depicting autumn as they delighted in its metamorphosis, complex moods and lack of bombast.  They also loved to depict wind, as broadened compositional technique and improved musicianship among performers opened the door for great wind pieces like Debussy's Preludes "...Le vent dans la plaine." and "...Ce qua vu le vent d'ouest." as well as Ibert's Le vent dans le ruins.  Luckily for them Autumn is just lousy with winds that poetically whip fallen leaves around and cause traffic accidents, and Malipiero's first Prelude finds a novel way to depict continuous rustling as well as nature's shifting state of decay:

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Impressionist trickery allows for cells of music to be placed as is on top of conflicting harmonic material to create unity within dissonance, and in this case Malipiero was able to use the old "pedal bass" trick and switch the unchanging element from the bottom to the middle.  It's a low boil uneasiness, quiet enough to attempt to ignore but still able to insinuate itself into everything you hear, like a cello imitating a mosquito.  The "B" section features one of his loveliest melodic turns (as well as some good ol' planing):

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The second Prelude is more impish and nostalgic, highly reminiscent of Debussy's "Le fille aux cheveux de lin" and offers much room for yearning, rubato phrasing:

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It's the most simply pretty one in the set, though there's still dramatic interruptions:

The third Prelude is much more profound, both in its register and mood, kneading a lydian chord with added 7 and 9 notes deep into the listener's psyche.  Its melody is concerned and elliptical, as if failing to untie a metaphorical knot.  It also gets plenty of mileage out of letting the listener settle into one block chord and then sliding into an ingenious contrast:

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Not to mention a much-earned fortissimo:

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The final Prelude is even more impish than the second and twice as sarcastic, taking a xylophonic glance at the changing seasons, as if the leaf part of the leaves fell off leaving the veins by themselves:

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It's an oddly caustic way to end the set, though most audiences will be relieved that there's at least one up-tempo piece.  The Preludi has suffered a similar fate to the rest of Malipiero's piano works - recorded every ten years or so and then seeing its own record go out of print.  This article was an exception for me in that I was able to pick my favorite performance from multiple candidates, though I'd be hard pressed as to where to find cheap CD's of any of them, though I guess this is a better fate than the bulk of Malipiero's other works.  Pretty much all of his symphonies have been recorded if you're in an orchestrally adventurous mood and have a few hours to kill - and in the deep freeze coming at the end of every year killing time might be the only thing we've got.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Autumnal Classics - The Fall of the Leaf by Gerald Finzi

Last time I inaugurated this month's theme of Autumnal Classics with a gorgeous Elizabethan number by Martin Peerson called The Fall of the Leafe.  I mentioned that the piece served as inspiration for a much later work by a better-known British composer, and today we're looking at that piece, a much revised elegy by the singular Gerald Finzi, one of the most distinguished of England's Pastoralist composers.  A shy, careful and deeply earnest composer, Finzi is second only to the much-lamented George Butterworth as the candidate for England's chief Autumnal composer.  Certain composers' works fit certain seasons (such as Milhaud's music capturing all the byzantine vitality and contrast of summer) and even when Finzi is writing about spring one can feel the weight of the forest's lost youth on his shoulders.  

Untroubled by financial worries and perpetually drawn away from hectic urban life, Finzi never let a wrong note leave his grasp and often revised, repurposed and discarded works until they were either perfect or buried, and the most extensive example of the former two acts can be seen in the evolution of a never-completed triptych.  In 1920 Finzi wrote a Prelude that he intended to be part of a chamber symphony, but as that project fell away he revised it with the hopes of it becoming the first part of a triptych on the seasons called The Bud, the Blossom and the Berry.  He completed and performed a two-piano version of the "Bud" movement, and when the triptych didn't come through as planned he rewrote it in the Prelude version for string orchestra with the intention of adding a contrasting movement.  He never wrote the other part, and the Prelude languished until receiving its premiere the year after Finzi's death, conducted by his son Christopher.  While I'm not reviewing the Prelude I can't help but include it as reference for what is to come, as well as by its own virtue of being a lushly wrought pang of melancholy.

While I can't speak for the "Blossom" movement of the triptych, the "Berry" movement did get some substantial work done on it before transforming into a separate work, The Fall of the Leaf, op. 20, drawing its title from the Peerson piece.  The piece doesn't directly reference Peerson's work or Renaissance music, but I feel that Finzi simply felt a kinship with a man who embellished a standard form of his day with unexpected poetic depth on an eternally haunting theme.  Much like the Peerson piece Finzi's Leaf is bound to a preexisting form, subtitled "Elegy", here foregoing real formal structure in favor of a soliloquy on death.  As graceful as the title may sound The Fall of the Leaf contains some of Finzi's most dramatic, volatile music, shifting keys without warning and plunging into dissonant outbursts, though not without Nature's beating heart at the center of it all.  Finzi is the rare composer where every piece of his in unmistakably his own, especially with his signature melodic writing that pulls the heartstrings along perfectly crafted stepwise motion.  The piece underwent more revisions than almost any other work in Finzi's oeuvre, and his desire to perfect it kept him from completing the orchestration of the final version of the piece before his death.  His longtime friend and colleague Howard Ferguson finished the orchestration and the piece received its premiere the same way the Prelude did, dutifully conducted by Finzi's son as a memorial to his father's gifted soul, and like many of Finzi's most beautiful works it serves well as a memorial.  Sometimes people write their own epitaphs in an instant, other times across decades, and it can be assuredly said that The Fall of the Leaf was well worth the wait.