Monday, October 18, 2021

Levit Plays Shostakovich: Review

Looking over my shelves, I have two previous recordings of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich. These were written after Shostakovich was sent to Leipzig in 1950 to serve on the jury of a competition connected with the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. First prize was won by Tatyana Nikolayeva who was prepared to play any of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier preludes and fugues on request. Shostakovich was quite impressed. Between October of that year and February of 1951 he composed a set of preludes and fugues in all the keys. My reference for this is Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, pp. 177 et seq.

Sometimes I think of myself as a "critical traditionalist" or someone who appreciates the enormous contribution the resonance of tradition makes to cultural activities like music. The "critical" part comes in recognizing the possible defects in tradition and the possible benefits deriving from genuinely new creative efforts. So I find the way that Shostakovich approaches harmony and counterpoint under the influence of Bach absolutely fascinating.

The oldest recording I have of these pieces is Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca dating from 1999. There are much earlier clips by Tatyana Nikolayeva and Shostakovich himself of selected individual pieces on YouTube, of course. I have to say that Ashkenazy does not really knock me out. I also have his complete Chopin and my impression of both recordings is that he is a fine technician, but rather a humdrum interpreter. No poetry.

The other recording that I picked up later is by Konstantin Scherbakov on Naxos. It was recorded in 1999 as well. Technically it is both clear and brilliant but it shows a lot of poetic grace as well. Very nice recording.

Igor Levit's recording history is very impressive. His debut two-disc set (he only seems to release recordings in double sets) was of the Beethoven late sonatas, something most pianists reserve for their later years. He followed this with the six Partitas of Bach (another double set) and then a monster set of variations: the Goldbergs by Bach, the Diabelli by Beethoven and The People United Will Never Be Defeated by Rzewski. What next, you might ask? There were a couple of CD releases that I missed somehow and then this: On DSCH, the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues with a third disc devoted to an homage written by the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson in 1960-61 on Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH. In notes:

The D is Dmitri, of course. In German E flat is called "es." The C is C and, also in German, B natural is referred to as "h." So DSCH spells Dmitri Shostakovich or as close as you can get in musical notes. Sadly there seems to be no good way of transliterating Bryan into notes! Bach however had the very obvious motif which is remarkably similar to DSCH:

The Stevenson piece is titled Passacaglia on DSCH and it is such a mammoth work, nearly an hour and a half long, that I will likely do a separate post on it. Suffice it to say that finding that piece and placing it next to the Shostakovich is the kind of creative programming we expect from Levit.

Now to the Shostakovich. These preludes and fugues demonstrate an astonishing range of creative invention from the calm sarabande of the first prelude in C major, to the Mussorgskian rumblings of the G major prelude, to the cheerful D major fugue, to the French overture style of the B minor prelude, to the A major fugue that sounds like Ravel, to the Hungarian dance-like F# minor prelude, to the very Bachian subject of the E major fugue. And then there are all the pieces that really only sound like Shostakovich: driving fugues, deeply resonant preludes and his trademark grotesquerie.

Now let's look at some examples. Here is the opening of the first prelude in C major:

Click to enlarge

Characteristic sarabande rhythm but the Shostakovich twist is the sudden switch to the tonic minor with a secondary dominant. What is unusual about Shostakovich's harmony is not that it does unprecedented things, but his practice is unexpected, takes unusual turns and is angular rather than smooth. He is always surprising you, which, actually, is only possible in a context where you have conventional harmonic expectations. In the C major fugue, he surprises by not having a single accidental in the entire piece! The entries wander about modally, but without leaving the diatonic scale. The rising fifth interval of the opening of the subject at one point becomes a tritone when it enters on B to F. The scintillating arpeggios of the A minor prelude immediately recall the Bach C major prelude from Bk I of the WTC:

But Shostakovich skews unexpectedly to F# major halfway through which Bach would have done quite differently. Shostakovich preserves some of the basic conventions of the Baroque fugue style: he always answers the subject on the fifth as in the A minor fugue:

Later on he has entries on C and G and a stretto on F# minor followed by one on B flat minor. Nearly every fugue uses stretto to some extent. The prelude in E minor uses Corelli 2nds to expressive effect:

I could go on and on, but this post is already a bit of a monster. But I have to mention a couple of the later pieces. The fugue in D flat major is in Shostakovich's semi-psychotic grotesque manner, starting with the subject:

This is followed by perhaps the most hauntingly expressive fugue of all, in B flat minor:

You need a whole page of that to get the idea. What a marvelous and complex subject. And when these richly riotous ornaments are piled up on top of one another all I can think is that it is as if Messiaen and Bach met up high in the alps and wrote a piece together.

Speaking of Messiaen, his piano music, especially the Catalogue d'oiseaux, is one of the great masterworks of 20th century piano music even though its great length and difficulty make it rarely heard. I think I would put these 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich on a similar plane. In a century rich with great piano music by Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Messiaen, I think that this music by Shostakovich, who did not write a great deal of piano music, deserves a place.

And here I am, at the end of this post, and I have not done a trace of what I promised: review Levit's recording of the piece! Well, it is very fine: accurate, expressive and brilliantly executed.

Here is a recording of Shostakovich playing the Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor. The fugue begins around the 3 minute mark.

UPDATE: You can find a pdf of the whole score here:

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Thirsting for Art

I was reading Ann Althouse this morning, who often has interesting takes on the issues of the day and found this post: Thrusting for faith. She identified the word "thrusting" as a misreading of the original which was "thirsting" making rather more sense! But what I found interesting as the rest of the quote:

Why are so many, especially so many young people, drawn to this ideology? It’s not because they are dumb. Or because they are snowflakes....All of this has taken place against the backdrop of major changes in American life—the tearing apart of our social fabric; the loss of religion and the decline of civic organizations; the opioid crisis; the collapse of American industries; the rise of big tech; successive financial crises; a toxic public discourse; crushing student debt. An epidemic of loneliness. A crisis of meaning....

“I became converted because I was ripe for it and lived in a disintegrating society thrusting for faith.” That was Arthur Koestler writing in 1949 about his love affair with Communism. The same might be said of this new revolutionary faith. And like other religions at their inception, this one has lit on fire the souls of true believers, eager to burn down anything or anyone that stands in its way....

Back in 1970 I was something of a lost soul. I grew up without religion. My parents were basically atheists though out of a sense of parental duty they sent me--briefly--to Sunday School until I rebelled and occasionally I went to church with my grandmother who was religious. None of that took! With the exception of one teacher I found school uninspiring. My mother was an old-time fiddler, but that didn't fire me up. I did get captivated by rock and blues music and played in a band for my high school years. But that also proved insufficient. Politics? For those of us who grew to maturity in the 60s politics was a pretty weak reed. My father's suggestion that I go to work in a bank I regarded with sheer horror. So I was wandering from one bad job to another: waiter, tree-planter, clam-digger, salal-gatherer and in between sleeping in until noon. Then I discovered classical music and Bach in particular. A friend took a picture of me I wish I still had. I am leaning out of the living room window cradling in my arm a box containing three vinyl records of the Bach Mass in B minor--sort of my version of Moses coming down from the mount with the tablet of the 10 commandments. I lost that copy years ago, but the same performance with the same cover (roughly) is in a DGG Bach Masterworks box on my shelf:

Now classical music wasn't the only thing that rescued me from the Slough of Despond, a chance remark by a friend helped. He had gone off to university, something I had not even considered, and was back for the holidays. We spent a nice evening chatting which included some discussion of ukiyo-e, the Japanese art of woodcut prints which I had recently discovered. As he left at the end of the evening he casually remarked "you really are university material." And next year I did indeed go to university which was the other important turning point in my life. I think the two things that rescued me from an aimless life were first of all Bach and classical music and second of all a decent university library in which I reveled in reading things like Copleston's History of Philosophy and Dante's Divine Comedy.

I think Bach rescued Dmitri Shostakovich as well when he was judge at a Bach competition in Leipzig in 1950, the dark days of the end of Stalin's reign and the 200th anniversary of Bach's death. Shostakovich wrote his own set of preludes and fugues after Bach on his return to the Soviet Union. I am about to put up a post reviewing Igor Levit's new recording.

In any case, I think that art, music in particular and Bach most especially, makes a better than most substitute for religion. At least, it worked out well for me. Here is the Kyrie from the Bach B minor Mass in the Karl Richter recording:

Saturday, October 16, 2021

David Russell: Bach Lute Suite #3

David Russell has been working his way through the Bach lute music (at least some of which is not actually lute music) and is now up to the 3rd Lute Suite, probably the most likely to be actually for lute even though it is a re-working of the Cello Suite No. 5 and that it was done by Bach has been challenged. Be that as it may, this suite and the Suite No. 4, a re-working of the Partita No. 3 for solo violin, are the most suitable for the guitar. Here is the new clip, just streamed last night:

David Russell is a fantastic guitarist, of course, commanding the whole repertoire with technical ease. I just listened to the gavottes, as I have been playing them a lot lately, and what really puzzles me is why he takes everything at a breakneck clip? In addition, is there a book on Baroque music that says that phrasing is not allowed in dance music (the gavotte being a dance form)? In that same book, is there another rule that says that the two gavottes have to be at the same tempo? True, just about every guitarist plays Bach in just this way, but so much the worse for them. No composer sounds his best when strapped to the Procrustean bed of rigid tempi and no allowance for expression. For example, I find that there are several places in the first gavotte where a little inégale works very well. Thomas Dunford inégales all the way through in his performance of the gavottes, but I prefer to mix it up a bit. The point is that this is music, not a race. Let the music ebb and flow a bit.

The Theatre of Music

Music performance practice is a far wider field than just where to use inégale in French Baroque music or how to handle cadential trills. It should actually include the whole theatre of performance as we find in opera: lighting, movement on stage, entrances and exits and a host of other details. I am moved to these thoughts by two recent orchestral performances. First, the gala opening night of the San Francisco Symphony with its new music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. I just mentioned this in yesterday's Miscellanea:

The programming for the evening, dubbed “Re-Opening Night,” was fierce and dynamic, without a note of music from the standard repertoire. At the heart of the evening was an expansive stylistic hybrid by Wayne Shorter, melding jazz and orchestral strains and featuring the inimitable Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. There were dancers from Alonzo King Lines Ballet, performing on a large thrust stage.

I wish I had been there for that! Read the whole thing. The other concert was in Salzburg in August and I wrote about it here: Currentzis Rocks Rameau.

But what was really remarkable last night was the basic conception of the music, what I have characterized as Currentzis rocks Rameau. Currentzis is of the wiggly-finger school of conducting (à la Gergiev) and one of the delights was watching him wiggle his fingers as he conducted his soprano in extended trills. He leaps in the air, stamps his feet and occasionally wanders among the orchestra, sometimes with a drum. Oh, and so does the orchestra: leap in the air, stamp their feet and occasionally wander around. Everything is done to de-formalize and re-energize the approach to the music and while I am usually skeptical of this kind of thing, last night it was done superbly well.

A lot of the performance was done in semi-darkness with just stand lights and the first half ended with the whole orchestra trooping offstage in darkness as they continued to play the last refrain of a contredanse from Les Boréades.

I think that both Salonen and Currentzis have a handle on what is going to really work for contemporary audiences as witnessed by the audience responses. The standard orchestral performance with the formality and the restraint and the hushed silence is really a response to the 19th century mode of music expression where what was sought was the "romantic trance" in which both the players and the audience go deep inside in a kind of meditative transformation. But there are other modes of performance! Currentzis is harkening back to a more 18th century style in which there is a kind of boisterous theatricality. Salzburg has a slightly conservative reputation, but one could imagine, during the blacked out parts of the performance, some of the audience members, in the private boxes at least, might have engaged in the kind of erotic encounters that were typical in the 18th century!

Salonen, on the other hand, appears to be channeling the "happening" kind of event that came about in the 1960s, but with better musical substance. A wild, multimedia event that is, when well done, irresistable. Looking back on my own career, I think the most memorable concert I can recall participating in was the Canadian premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze, a chamber opera for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion in which all the performers play a lot of percussion instruments in addition to their usual one. We also used lighting to enhance the performance and there was a wild concatenation of musical styles from aleatory to declamatory recitative to Cuban folk idioms.

What I find most interesting here is that a really good solution to the problem of audience apathy is not pandering to their tastes or filleting in pop music, but by making creative musical decisions with real substance behind them.

Love to hear your thoughts...

For an envoi here is a tiny taste of Correntzis' Rameau without any theatre:

And here is the first half of El Cimarrón, sung in English:

Friday, October 15, 2021

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with a story of reunited lovers: Randy Bachman's guitar was stolen 45 years ago in Toronto. He just found it in Tokyo. It is hard to explain to non-guitarists just how deep the relationship between musician and instrument can be. I'm sure the same applies to violinists, cellists and other instrumentalists as well! But as a guitarist, I am more familiar with my instrument. I purchased my guitar in Vancouver in 1983 and have played it ever since--that is through one major repair and one complete restoration of cracks, fret and tuner replacement and complete revarnishing. Oh, and during this time I also had quite a few girlfriends and one marriage! But my guitar is a constant in my life.

Most of Randy Bachman’s guitars – over 400 at last count – are today safe inside the climate-controlled rooms of museums and memorabilia collections. But the guitar he really loves? The one he so cherishes that he would chain it to the toilet of his hotel room at night? Well, that one disappeared 45 years ago from a Toronto-area Holiday Inn, never to resurface again.

That is, until now.

Read the whole thing to learn how he finally managed to recover that special guitar.

* * *

Here is another useful project from The Guardian: The best classical music works of the 21st century. One sterling example that I have heard in a few soundtracks is by Max Richter: "On the Nature of Daylight" from The Blue Notebooks (2004).

It is very reassuring that there is so much good music being written now.

* * *

Jan Swafford weighs in with a really interesting essay on when AI tries to do Beethoven:

Artificial intelligence can mimic art, but it can’t be expressive at it because, other than the definition of the word, it doesn’t know what expressive is. It also doesn’t know what excitement is, because there’s a reason people call excitement “pulse-pounding,” and computers don’t have pulses. When computers set out to do art, they don’t fashion it in a whirl of creative trance inflected by a deadline; they can’t account for the heat or alarming lack of it in the room, sensations in the groin, the failure or success of drawing a foot that looks planted on the ground, the failure or success of creating rhythmic momentum on the page, the bit that’s bullshit and needs to be fixed and the bit that’s really good and you see where it wants to go, the woman or man you just met who excites you and whom you hope to excite, the thought of the idiots who think they can write as well as you, also the bastards who write better than you, what you’re having for dinner or what you had for dinner that’s not agreeing with you, the hairs falling out of your head onto the page, the expense of ink or paint or the rehearsal costs of a symphony orchestra, and so forth and so on, while in your trance you’re trying to conjure out of the air a portrait in words or tones or images of, say, that man or woman who maybe will appreciate you for the effort. Along with all that and maybe above all that, the gnawing and relentless drive to do something really good, this time, for all the above reasons and more, whether it’s trying to convince the woman to love you, or the public or God to love you, and/or to pay the rent, and to show yourself that you can damned well do something at least in the direction of really good in this possibly cursed endeavor that you believe you’ve been born to do, and without which your life is something in the direction of meaningless. 

None of that can be programmed into a computer in any way that means anything. To repeat: The only true, meaningful intelligence is in a body, and likewise the only true and meaningful creativity.

* * *

This will likely depress you, Ted Gioia's 12 Predictions for the Future of Music.

Dead musicians will start by giving tours in concert halls, but as the cost of the technology goes down, they will begin performing everywhere. Holograms of Elvis may make their debut at a pricey Las Vegas casino, but will soon show up at your neighborhood bar. James Brown will sing at the Apollo once more, but eventually take wedding reception and bar mitzvah gigs.

Ok, time to move to a little cabin in the mountains with no Internet. 

* * * 

I've long been a fan of Salonen, so this is nice to see: Esa-Pekka Salonen and S.F. Symphony offer an opening night like no other.

To say that a new era at the San Francisco Symphony has begun at Davies Symphony Hall is true as far as it goes. But that doesn’t begin to convey just how transformative an event this was, or how thoroughly Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has reconceived the strained old traditions of the season opening gala.

In a belated inaugural event on Friday, Oct. 1, delayed for a long painful year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Salonen finally got a chance to show Symphony patrons what his leadership is going to look like. The short version is: like nothing we’ve experienced to date.

The programming for the evening, dubbed “Re-Opening Night,” was fierce and dynamic, without a note of music from the standard repertoire. At the heart of the evening was an expansive stylistic hybrid by Wayne Shorter, melding jazz and orchestral strains and featuring the inimitable Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. There were dancers from Alonzo King Lines Ballet, performing on a large thrust stage.

To get a sense of what sounds like an amazing concert, read the whole thing!

* * *

Here is another take on the recent Nigel Kennedy controversy:

 Mocking Kennedy thirty years ago for performing the Berg Violin Concerto wearing vampire make-up and a cloak, the Radio Three controller John Drummond described him as a ‘Liberace for the nineties’. Paganini may be a better comparison: a restless figure of astonishing ability, despised by many critics as a circus performer and accused by others of selling his soul to the devil. Kennedy – who named his son Sark Yves Amadeus Kennedy – seems similarly trapped, a kind of clown maudit with a virtuoso gift for embarrassing nearly everyone nearly all the time. An honest history of this entire reach of stunt music would have to include informed critical appraisal both of Kennedy’s sonic reworkings (shrewd or too obvious?) and of the quality of his improvisation (haunting or merely corny?). But for all his evidently bankable willingness to pick certain fights, such creative decisions are rarely discussed, because all traces of the arcanely musical arguments for them end up smoothly effaced.

* * *

The New York Times has a piece on conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler: A Conductor’s Impossible Legacy

For Hitler, Furtwängler was the supreme exponent of holy German art; it was to the Nazis’ satisfaction that he served — in effect if not in title — as the chief conductor of the Third Reich.

The complications are many. Furtwängler never joined the Nazi party, and after his initial protests over the expulsions of Jewish musicians and the erosion of his artistic control were resolved in the Nazis’ favor in 1935, he found ways to distance himself from the regime, not least over its racial policies. His performances with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Bayreuth Festival at once served the Reich and gave succor to those who sought to survive it, even oppose it.

* * * 

I guess we should have Kennedy's Four Seasons as our first envoi:

 Ok, what the f**k is he wearing? I guess some Salonen would be nice about now. Here is his tone poem Nyx, the Greek goddess of night:

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Lea Desandre: Amazone

Here is another clip from the new Lea Desandre album that is out of stock at Amazon:

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Aris Quartet: Schulhoff, Kurtág and Mendelssohn

This string quartet concert from Wigmore Hall was just streamed yesterday. Very interesting program avoiding the usual clichés. I have not heard of the quartet before. They are based in Frankfurt am Main.