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Withdrawn Month - Benjamin Britten's Young Apollo, op. 16 (1939)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


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.


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.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Pierre Boulez's 3 Psalmodies

A while ago I did an article on a CD by pianist Patricia Goodson that featured a bunch of great pieces by known-and-unknown American composers, and one of my favorite pieces on the disc was Augusta Read Thomas's Whites, a diffusely compelling sonic exploration of the color white.  My liking for the piece came up against a factoid I discovered in researching that article - Whites, as well as Thomas's deserving-of-performance Sonata for solo trumpet, had been withdrawn by Thomas herself and has been out of print for decades.  Some composers feel the need to discourage performance of, or outright destroy, pieces of theirs that they think aren't up to snuff, and in cases such as Paul Dukas what they deemed snuff-full enough is so little their whole oeuvre can be performed in a marathon without much discomfort.  The thing of it is...sometimes artists are wrong.  Really wrong, and in a way that is needlessly destructive.  Hell, most of Kafka's work would have been lost to the ages if his will's executors had followed his instructions to burn all his unpublished manuscripts after his death.  I've done some searching and found a number of quality works that their authors tried to bury, in some cases successfully, and we'll examine them this January as Withdrawn Month, apt as everybody is trapped indoors cursing and letting their social lives wither for the sake of blankets and fresh coffee.  Originally I was going to wait on these articles to finish the Marco Polo Awards but a staggering coincidence occurred and forced my hand.  We are now living in an age where Pierre Boulez is no more.

Boulez is a figure so ubiquitous in the minds of the classical music community that one cannot throw a conversational stick and not hit several conflicting opinions, especially among composers.  I've met a number of name composers in my day and all of them had something to say about Boulez even if they were never asked about him.  When Daron Hagen visited UPS to do a masterclass he listed Boulez's Éclat among his six favorite works, claiming that Boulez was at his best emulating Debussy and not "playing mind games with himself".  Gunther Schuller, a longtime conducting champion of some crushingly difficult composers, wanted to write Boulez an angry letter for publishing 13 different revisions of his piece ...explosante-fixe... and collecting royalty checks for each one.  I knew about Boulez long before I heard any of his works because I had his Varèse album in high school, holding on to it before discovering how much better Riccardo Chailley's complete Varèse CD set is.  However you personally feel about Boulez is merely one internal voice against the universal truth of his enormous presence in international music, and even a voice as iconoclastic as his feels the pressure to regulate his public image, such as the case with a handful of early pieces of his that were discarded before seeing print.  Luckily for me, one of them is preserved in an archival recording, and considering that, as of this writing, Boulez has been dead for only a day there's no time like the present to reveal a supposed skeleton in his closet.

Boulez's first acknowledged work is the 12 Notations for piano from 1945, one of my two favorite works of his; the other is memoriale (...explosante-fixe...originel) for solo flute, two horns and string sextet from 1985.  The work we're looking at today, 3 Psalmodies for piano, was written earlier in the same year as Notations but never saw the light of printed day.  At this time in his life Boulez was under the wings of Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, the biggest proponents of serialism in France at the time, and as such the Notations are Webern-brief and overtly experimental, each one highly focused studies in color and technique.  They also exist at a time when he was still open to a bit of natural expression, and that openness is more apparent in the Psalmodies.  The major difference between the Psalmodies and the rest of Boulez's work is immediately apparent - the former has actual drama.  Many of the same compositional tricks are present from the Notations, such as percussive basement rumblings, explosive and disjointed arpeggios, duets that are unsure of who is leading who, etc., but rather than concentrate these techniques into terse blocks Boulez has arranged them into what we believe in our hearts to be full pieces with beginnings, middles and ends.  The writer Peter O'Hagan wrote about the Psalmodies in his essay "Pierre Boulez and the Founding of IRCAM" (collected in the book French Music Since Berlioz) and was able to track down a manuscript of the piece in order to show the first few bars as an example::

O'Hagan saw a great deal of Messiaen's influence in these pieces and I can't help but acknowledge treble figurations reminiscent of birdsong, references to Catholicism, violently irregular rhythms and more Messiaenisms.  Heck, the recording here is made by another Messiaen disciple, the highly obscure Yvette Grimaud, who apparently was an ethnomusicologist and premiered the Psalmodies, Notations and famously impossible-to-play Piano Sonata no. 2 from what little I was able to gather on her.  She also composed some music, including microtonal works, so there's another detective case for me.  The harmonic language certainly isn't Messiaen, though, and fits more with accepted atonal chord structures of the time, and the mood is less "mystical awe" and more "chased by a goblin".  The most interesting thing to me, though, is that this score example is nowhere in the recording, and I say that having listened to it multiple times.  There are chords that sound like the ones in the example and times where the example could have occurred but it just never shows up.  Now, I know that O'Hagan probably had access to the manuscript, as one is housed in the Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler in Paris, and it's unlikely he would pull an example out of his explosante-derrière to make a point.  The question now arises as to whether this is a different version of the pieces or if this recording is of a different piece altogether.  I'm erring to the former, partially so this article isn't a complete waste of everybody's time, and also because I can't find a listing for a suitable alternative in Boulez's catalog, even among the withdrawn works.  Either way I'd be very interested to see the full score of the Psalmodies, perhaps just so there can be a work by Boulez that I'm able and inclined to play aside from the Notations.  In the meantime if anybody out there has more information on this piece I'd love to hear it, and in the meanertime let's admire how a 20-year-old composer under the influence of a powerful teacher can't help but write an original and cohesive piece and then decide it's not original enough.  Rest in Peace, you magnificent solipsist.