Sunday, April 17, 2011

Time become space. Jeremy Denk, Ives and Bach

"Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit”

A few weeks ago I went to New York ostensibly to hear Maurizo Pollini play the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier at Carnegie Hall.   Alas, he was taken ill and canceled.  His replacement was Jeremy Denk a young (early 40s) American pianist with a rising reputation and a blogger..  His program: the Ives Concord Sonata and the Bach Goldberg Variations; about as strong a statement of serious intent as would be possible, especially for a Carnegie debut.  

But still,not Pollini, who is about as august a presence as can be found in the piano world.  But I had the ticket and had the reservations, so off I went.

The Concord made up the first half of the program.  Forty-five minutes, four movements.  Extremely and unrewardingly difficult.   Unrewarding because some of the difficulties are gratituious, caused by Ives not being a pianist and thickly scored.  So there are passages that are very difficult that don't actually sound that difficult and none of it is intended to show off the pianist's brilliance.  I suppose one could call it rebarbative.  

It also isn't in any key or meter.  Most of it doesn't have bar lines.  There are no recognizable structural sign-posts for the performer or the listener (at least not in the traditional sense).  It is highly discontinuous, in a way that seems post-modern.  It is absurdist, ironic, mocking, pious, pompous, bombastic, redundant, endless, repetitive and banal.  It is also elegiac, tragic and possessing a kind of transcendent grandeur won from it's own self-doubt and struggle and refusal to avoid the very problems that it raises and refuses to solve.

Why anyone would program it is beyond me.  I was going to say the Denk dispatched it with ease, but that's not quite right.  He possesses seeming limitless technical and tonal resources, not something usually associated with "intellectual" pianists.  To say that he played it with ease would deny the physicality of the performance, of a human body working hard and with grace.  That and the feeling of risk being taken, of something if not moral that at least ethical being at stake, of someone trying hard to come to terms with whatever it was that Ives was trying to say about music and being an American composer.

I was familiar with the Concord from recordings and had not been won over.  Hearing it live in a masterful performance, I now regard as one of the signal achievements of the last century.

Above is a screen capture of the score.  You can find the whole thing here.   It's worth looking at for the score; in addition to the music, you'll find all of Ives' discussion of the piece and it's inspiration in the New England transcendentalists.  

Then the Goldberg Variations for the second half.  It's often the only piece on a program.  There are 32 variations and each is written to be repeated.  If all the repeats are taken, it's maybe 70 minutes long - there are no or few tempo marking in Bach so you can play it as fast or as slow as you like.  Denk took maybe half the repeats so his performance lasted maybe 50 minutes.

It can be hard to tell if a variation is repeated, by the way.  First, a good performer will add additional ornaments the second time through.  But Bach's counterpoint is so rich and his ability to suspend musical voces above one another is so great that one listening cannot grasp all that's going one, so the second seems as new, as it were, as the first.   

Whereas Ives is inchoate Bach logical, as it were, but just as mysterious. infinite in craftsmanship and attention to detail, limitless in invention, lapidary, elegant, clear without being obvious or pedantic; considerable depths always transparent.  At least in Denk's hands.  And the piece is not easy, being , it seems to me, at the technical limits of Bach's keyboard writing.  It rewards the performer with passage work of sparking virtuosity and animal good spirits, leaps and hand-crossing (especially difficult on the piano rather than the two keyboard harpsichord for which was written).

It is also, as far as I know, the only instance of the variation form in all of Bach's music.  

About mid-way through, I realized that I was starting to fade.  I was becoming tired.  I wondered about the pianist.  I wasn't worried about his physical technique, but the mental demands of such a program must be considerable.  So I pulled myself upright and then leaned over the balcony railing and relaxed and started listening more closely. 

Sometimes we talk about the "long line" in music, the quality of breath, real or metaphoric, that keeps all the parts of a piece in in order, that keeps it from becoming episodic.  It is, I think, generally a matter of dynamics and tempo, but especially dynamics, and it's very hard to achieve.  You can tell it's happening when the music continues during silences and at full stops.  At many places, Denk finished one variation and pounced directly into the next.  But at others, especially after the slow ones, he paused and held the pause.  So in my opinion, he maintained the a continuous thread from the beginning to the end of the Variations.  A very considerable achievement.

Then, for an encore, although one would not be expected after such a demanding program, he repeated the third movement of the Ives, the most subdued and reflective and the circle was closed. 

So, a serious program asking a lot of the audience and more of the performer.  By the time the Variations were 
underway, you could have heard a pin drop.

Here's another piece by Ives, one of his most beautiful songs.  The piano part is not that difficult. Try it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Glen Gould

I rented Michele Hozer's and Peter Raymont's documentary  Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glen Gould.

I'd been skeptical about it, fearing either pure hagiography or lurid expose.  It appears to be a balanced and clear eyed view of major musical talent.  Gould was loquacious, talking, engagingly and with great warmth, insight and humor.   

There seems to be endless footage of him walking: on the beach, in the snow, at night on the sidewalks of Toronto.

Also included are extensive interviews with Cornelia Foss, who left her husband, the composer Lucas Foss for Gould in 1967, and the two Foss children, who have warm memories of him.  Jamie Lorado makes frequent appearances along with Fred Sherry.  In addition, childhood friends and producers and engineers from  Columbia and the CBC.  Of special interest to me were the comments of a classmate of his from the Toronto Conservatory on his piano technique.

As with most music documentaries, there is not one piece played in its entirety:  a few bars and then voice-over.  But Gould's playing, at it's best, was so transcendent that what we do hear completely overshadows the movie.  Who would want to listen to talk when one could witness such playing?

The famous conflict with Leonard Bernstein over Gould's approach to the Brahms D-minor is recounted and we get to hear a bit of the first movement.  I must say, it's dreadful.  Gould's playing was all in his fingers and his detached attack and crystalline fleetness were unsuited to Brahms.   Later we hear him playing one of the early Brahms ballades (as an accompaniment to moody pacing around in supposed response to Cornelia's having returned to her husband).  The playing is fussy and unconvincing.

There is considerable fascinating footage of Gould at work in the recording studio.  He quite famously gave up public performance for recording early in his career.  It's strange to remember a point in time when a classical pianist would be treated as a recording star by a major conglomerate. 

There's also see tour of Russia and a still photo of him with Richter (who thought Gould could be absolutely brilliant, but correctly criticized his failure to take the repeats in Bach).  There's quite a bit about the Cold War era.   A lost world, one that I remember.

Cornelia Foss left Gould over his drug use - apparently all pharmaceuticals.  The only drugs mentioned are anti-depressants and drugs for anxiety.  I'd like to know more.  I've always felt that there's a certain speed vibe in his sense of time with it's elasticity and incredible control.   He had certain sonic similarities with Dylan, the high clear amphetamine sound in Blonde on Blonde especially.

Most of the footage used in the movie is from the earlier part of this life.  According to Foss, he became increasingly paranoid and controlling.   Details are not provided. 

He died of a stroke shortly after his 50th birthday, in 1982, seven years before the fall of the Berlin wall.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, support for the arts in the U.S. began to decline: we no longer had to prove to the world that we could compete with the Communists in all areas of culture.

Gould lived in to the early days of the digital revolution that would destroy the recording industry that sustained his career and his retreat from the stage.

His hypochondria is discussed: like Duke Ellington, he was afraid to shake hands.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Nature Has Reasons

Lui Chi: The Terror

I worry that my ink well 
    may run dry,
that right words 
    cannot be found.
I want to respond to each 
   moment's inspiration.
Work with what is given;
    that which passes cannot be detained.
Things move into shadows and vanish;
    memory returns in an echo.
When Spring arrives,
    we understand why Nature has reasons.
Thoughts rise form the heart on breezes
    and language finds its speaker.
Yesterday's buds are this morning's blossoms
    we draw with a brush on silk.
Every eye knows a pattern;
    every hear hears distant music.

Lui Chi's Wen Fu
Translated by Sam Hamill

The Wen Fu, from the 3rd century, is the earliest work on the poetic arts in Chinese.  However, no distinction seems be be made between poetry and music, or at least, poetry and song, so it is a guide for musicians as well.  It's published by Milkweed Editions under the name The Art of Writing.

If you're interested what tradition might mean, where it comes from and how it abides, read this little book.  It is from a world and time almost inconceivably remote.  It is ironic that classical Chinese poetry became the touchstone for so much of modernism in American letters, with it's own rejection of the 19th century poetic canon.   

This encounter can be explored in detail in the Eliot Weinberger edited New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, which includes translations by Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder and David Hinton.  It also includes what appears to be a fantastical translation of the Wen Fu by Achilles Fang and essays and reviews of each others' work by Williams and Snyder.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New blog added

Iron Tongue of Midnight - this one form San Fransisco.  The author, Lisa Hirsch is to be commended for subjecting music journalism to pretty close scrutiny.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mark Alexander Boyd


Fra bank to bank, fra wood to wood I rin,
Ourhailit with my feeble fantasie;
Like til a leaf that fallis from a tree,
Or til a reed ourblawin with the win.
Twa gods guides me: the ane of tham is blin,
Yea and a bairn brocht up in vanitie;
The next a wife ingenrit of the sea,
And lichter nor a dauphin with her fin.
Unhappy is the man for evermair
That tills the sand and sawis in the air;
But twice unhappier is he, I lairn,
That feidis in his hairt a mad desire,
And follows on a woman throw the fire,
Led by a blind and teachit by a bairn.

Scotland 1570

Friday, January 21, 2011

Boulder Symphony

Saturday, January 15th, I attended a concert by the Boulder Symphony at the Mountain View United Methodist.  I'm just a blogger, and an intermittent one at that, not a journalist under the obligation cover the local scene.  But a friend of mine was playing and they had the Schoenberg 1st Chamber Symphony on the program -- not something one expects from  a community orchestra.  

I know and admire the work from two recordings -- admire, but not love.  It's a work of formidable density -- a kind of cubist view of the 19th century symphonic tradition with the four movements of the standard symphony more or less played at the same time in one intense, twenty minute span.  Quite a stunning feat and by far the most advanced work of the pre WWI second Vieniesse school.  All of the standard techniques and gestures of the tradition are subverted and frustrated.  Yet it's an very much an example of the "constant variation" technique developed by Brahms. It couldn't possible be easy to play and not something one would want to hear butchered.

(The composer was also a painter, although an "expressionist" not a cubist.)

The church is one of those giant A-frames that were so popular in the 70's, quite large with very high ceilings.  Not a promising acoustic environment.  So I plopped myself down in the front row, right next to the conductor's podium.  Besides, the place was full and I'd arrived only ten minutes early.

The first piece, for the full orchestra, was Mozart's Overture for La Clemenza di Tito.  Well played.
Then the Schoenberg.   Reduced forces - a chamber symphony, after all, just sixteen instraments.  Associate conductor Alejandro Gomez-Guillen delivered some illuminating introductory remarks with examples played by the orchestra.  And then off they went: a performance more than competent: committed, engaged, sure footed, with accurate intonation and moments real power. 

Gomez-Guillen conducted with dispatch, accuracy and authority.  He must really know how to rehearse.  The orchestra, generally quite young, played beautifully together with remarkable coherence and communication: humility, musicianship and loyalty.

Subsequent research (Google!) reveals that Gomez-Guillen, is a violinist and PhD candidate in conducting at the CU College of Music.  The web site lists the orchestra members, a number of whom have web sites and many of whom are graduate students on their instruments at local schools . The clarinet chair for the Schoenberg was held by the wonderful Deborah Goretity recently returned to the US after years free lancing in Europe.

The second half started with the R. Strauss Serinade for Winds, written when he was a student.  Also well played and also impressive - woodwinds are hard, btw.  Then two concerto movements, one form Hydan and one Mozart played by two local compeittion winners,  Andrea Lin, perhaps ten years old, and Sonya Walker, thirteen.  Both played musically and did themselves proud.   Appaently there's quite a competition scene for young musicians.  I'm not sure this is healthy.

But the Boulder Symphony is clearly in excellent health.  Visit their web site.  And attend the upcoming concerts.     

Here's a review of an earlier performance.   Note that the Strauss Serenade was played then as well, which suggests limited rehearsal time. 
Those works of Schoenberg that made it into the general repertory are early ones, Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot lunaireThe piano music turns up, in part because all of it is short and therefore easy to program.  There is a wonderful recording of the Gurre-Lieder by Pierre Boulez which is completely sui generis -- if anything, it sounds like Debussy.  Which makes me want to listen to the Austrian's Pellas.

His later works have met with much less acceptance, although there is an absolutely wonderful recording of the Violin Concerto by Hillary Hahn with Essa Pekka Salonen.  It's coupled with the Sebilus.  The Schoenberg is passionate and exciting.  The Sibelus 

There's also a wonderful recording of the Piano Poncerto with Uchida and Boulez which includes all the solo piano music as well as the Berg sonata and the Webern Variations.

Friday, December 31, 2010

As I Went Out One Evening

New Years is about the past and the future.  So here's simple lyric poem by W.H. Auden.  The link below is to a reading by none other than Dylan Thomas.  It's sounds old-fashioned, as I suppose it is.  The poem itself is old fashioned, as old in its sentiments at least as Plutarch or the Provençal Troubadours.  But modern too, a recognizable 20th Century city-scape.  The near rhymes, hold/world and is/kiss are themselves like the crack in the teacup in the 10th stanza.  

Dylan Thomas reads Auden

As I walked out one evening,
   Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
   Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
   I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
   'Love has no ending.

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
   Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
   And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
   Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
   Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
   For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
   And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
   Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
   Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
   And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
   Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
   And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
   The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
   A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
   And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
   And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
   The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
   And the deep river ran on.