Recitative and Aria is not dead

A pupil asked to listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you‘.

I could barely remember how it went but I recognised an introduction over simple chords with free vocals before the main body of the song in a different tempo and I thought ‘recitative and aria’.

The first classical example to occur to me was ‘Behold I tell you a mystery…’. I’m sure there’s others I could have referred to.

And another pop example (one of my favourites) is Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive.

Debussy writing about Bach

I am reading Sir John Eliot Gardiner book on JS Bach and I came across this quote from a letter to the publisher Jacques Durand:

“When the old Saxon Cantor hasn’t any ideas, he starts out from any old thing and is truly pitiless. In fact he’s only bearable when he’s admirable. Which, you’ll say, is still something! If he’d had a friend – a publisher perhaps – who could have told him to take a day off every week, perhaps, then we’d have been spared several hundreds of pages in which you have to walk between rows of mercilessly regulated and joyless bars, each one with its little ‘subject’ and ‘countersubject’.

Sometimes – often indeed – his prodigious technical skill (which is, after all, only his individual form of gymnastics) is not enough to fill the terrible void created by his insistence on developing a mediocre idea no matter what the cost!”

This brought to mind Sir Thomas Beecham’s saying “Too much counterpoint, and, what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.”

Some thoughts on Brahms Handel-variations

As a teenager I used to listen a lot to Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. I’m pretty sure it was part of a Walter Klein disc of Brahms and I loved the whole thing.

However it’s not a piece I have listened to much over the intervening 30+ years. Yet I heard it in a masterclass at the Oxford Philomusica’s Piano Festival and Summer Academy on Monday and I remembered my youthful love for it.

I’m not studying it and don’t have time for a complete analysis but here are some random thoughts that came to mind.

Variety and constraint – within the first few variations Brahms maximises the variety of textures, figuration, style, rhythm and dynamics and shows both diatonic and chromatic harmony. This is the calling card of a young man, possibly one showing off to cover up some insecurity. I am reminded of another young man’s music – Handel’s Dixit Dominus where he puts all his cards on the table in an uninhibited way.

Brahms lets variation-form impose boundaries on him – each variation except one has the same number of bars, he restricts himself to B-flat major and B-flat minor with just one variation outside these keys, the harmony of theme and its melodic-pattern are almost always there somewhere. It’s clear that Brahms enjoyed the discipline of fugues, variations and passacaglias. One only has to think of the passacaglias in the 4th Symphony and the Haydn Variations and the fugues in the German Requiem.

I was also reminded of the Goldberg variations – I do not know if Brahms knew these – and the Beethoven Diabelli varations – I have the CD but know them hardly at all.

Structure – variations 23 and 24 build in excitement and there is a tremendous sense of arrival and maybe even completness or homecoming when variation 25 starts off ff in B-flat major. In the fugue Brahms goes through various keys perhaps to make a contrast with the preceeding variations and employs the usual devices of augmentation and inversion.

Brahms’ Style – I’m sure study would reveal many similarities between these variations and his later works. I’ll simply compare the dominant pedal in the fugue which jumps octaves with that in the opening cadenza to the 2nd concerto.

It was a great experience to hear this piece again after so many years.

Pictures at an Exhibition – Paul Lewis

A few weeks ago we heard Paul Lewis’ recent programme in Birmingham.

BACH – BUSONI        ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’  BWV639
BEETHOVEN            Sonata in Eb major  op.27 no.1

BACH – BUSONI        ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’  BWV659
BEETHOVEN            Sonata in C# minor op.27 no.2  “Moonlight”

LISZT                        Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort  S203
Unstern! sinistre, disastro  S.208
Richard Wagner – Venezia  S.201

MUSSOURGSKY       Pictures at an exhibition

The big draw was the Mussourgsky which I had never heard live. As a teenager I got to know the orchestral version and couldn’t imagine how the original piano version could match it and I never heard the original until many years later. Now I prefer it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike the orchestral version – they are clearly different.

I had very limited knowledge of Mussourgsky, Yes, there is Night on a bare mountain, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina and didn’t he become an alcoholic. So how come he wrote apparently only one piano work and that a masterpiece, unlike say Chopin, Liszt or Debussy. The answer is that Pictures did not come from nothing – Mussourgsky’s mother was a pianist and he began lessons aged six.

I hugely enjoyed the performance. I’m often dismissive of commentators and teachers who talk about getting ranges of colour from the piano, maybe because I think I can only get one sound from it. However, if by colour we simply mean varied textures and their voicing and dynamics, then I understand and this was provided in abundance. I particularly appreciated Paul Lewis’ manner at the keyboard – no superfluous gestures and no showmanship. It was all about the music and the sound conveyed it all.

I have a soft spot for the ‘Moonlight’ sonata’s sister so it was nice to hear both together and have each preceeded by a Busoni transciption of a Bach chorale prelude.

I have read in textbooks of the ‘strangeness’ and advanced harmonic language of Liszt’s late piano pieces. One hearing is insufficient to appreciate or make sense of what we heard. I’m happy to go with the performer’s judgement that they are worth playing and hearing.

Here is another pianist Evgeny Kissin playing part of the Mussourgsky.

And here is Melanie Spanswick talking with Paul. Amazingly Paul does not come from an instrument-playing household. He borrowed records from the local library from the age of 8 and did not realise there was anything unusual in being able at the age of 4 to teach himself tunes on a bontempi keyboard.

And here is a different Busoni transcription played by a different pianist Murray Perahia.

Choral Music for the New Year

Later on this month East of England Singers will be performing some movements from Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Passing of the Year’. In keeping with my post on ‘second chances’, when I hurriedly listened to the first movement before Christmas I just did not get it – 5 pages of an unchanging piano part, the choir chanting a sentence concurrently in 4 different rhythms. However a couple of the faster movements convinced me to persevere, so much so that I requested the CD for Christmas (it was a good value Naxos one).

I listened to the whole work and I found the 6th section ‘Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss!’ to be particularly striking.

I quote 4 lines from the first verse to give you an idea of the sentiments

Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.

Whilst one choir sings this or similar words, the other sings a more traditional ‘Lord have mercy on us’.
A powerful and effective movement – sadly we will not be performing it on this occasion.

The cycle closes with a setting of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out, wild bells‘.

What an excuse for the composer to portray the clanging of bells in both voice and piano. Again, hugely effective. An apparently monstrous piano part and some tricky polyrhythms in the voice parts. However you don’t need to understand the techniques behind it – just enjoy.

Second Chances

It’s really important to give pieces of music multiple chances. I can think of more than a few pieces which have not grabbed me at first hearing – maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, maybe the piece was in an unfamiliar idiom or maybe it was a piece that requires multiple hearings to yield up its charms.

One example is Jimbo’s Lullaby from Debussy’s Children’s Corner – I’ve had the music for years and must have sight-read my way through it a few times without being grabbed. However on a taster day at a piano-teaching course it came alive for me and I have looked at the score again and found much to enjoy. I originally dismissed that opening tune in the bass as a boring pentatonic sequence of notes, then followed by some weird seconds and whole tone harmony. Somehow I feel differently about it now. The structure of the composition repays study too – Debussy uses three themes and mixes pentatonic, whole tone and more orthodox ideas and near the end the right hand combines two of the themes. By way of contrast the ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’, the final piece of Children’s Corner, has an immediate, much more obvious appeal.

Michelangeli’s recording is widely praised and people talk of the variety of colours he gets. I do not find this helpful as I don’t seem to hear it as they do. It is still a beautiful and varied performance. When choosing a recording to request for Christmas I chose Simon Trpceski’s version on the grounds of his absolute faithfulness to the markings in the score, but there are many good versions out there.

Another piece that I hastily dismissed first time is the Andantino by Chopin, a piano version of his song Wiosna currently set for ABRSM Grade 3. I feel that to play this too fast trivialises it and one has to overcome a feeling of strangeness about a particular note in the melody – an e natural set against an F7 chord. For me that feeling of strangeness has changed to one of anticipation and I relish it. The structure and harmony are very simple and on the face of it the notes are not that difficult. For the grade 3 pianists holding that left note through the bar with finger 5 while the other fingers play a broken chord may well be new and tricky at first and keeping the left hand thumb appropriately gentle on the 3rd and 6th quavers is important. It goes without saying that projecting and shaping the melody above the accompaniment matter too.

The text of the original song features a few verses about nature but then refers to our love-sick shepherd and this for me confirms my preference for slower renditions, such as this one.