Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Must Hear Music in Kansas City, 2012-2013 Edition

The marquees, ads, banners, and such will be trumpeting major works that the Kansas City Symphony will be featuring this coming season; the second in the literally world renowned Helzberg Hall. Mahler 6th, Beethoven Eroica, Carmina Burana and Schubert 9th will be featured, for example. But tucked in among these incredible jewels are some lesser known gems that a serious concert goer should not miss. Here are two, with more to follow.

Berg Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel” (1935)
May 31-June 2 2013 Gil Shaham Violin, Michael Stern Conducting.

If any work can convince a skeptic that the twelve-tone school of composers did not always write “ugly music” it would be this exquisite concerto from 1935. A touching and glowing instrumental requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Architect Walter Gropius and Mahler's widow Alma, the Violin Concerto has emerged as Alban Berg's most popular work. It was also his last completed work.

In contrast to the craggy but colorful Schoenberg and the minimalist Webern, Berg carefully chose the notes of his tone row; teeters on the edge of tonality. He also incorporated fragments from an Austrian folk song and a Bach chorale that springs almost naturally from his chosen sequence of tone.

Berg conceived his Concerto in two movements, each then subdivided into two parts. The opening Andante presents the twelve-tone row on which the concerto is based, immediately establishing a tonal and contemplative mood. The more animated second half, marked Allegretto, serves as a scherzo with two trios and was described by the composer as a portrait of Manon Gropius. In this section, we hear music associated with the vivacious young actress including folk dances, waltzes, and even a section that is to be played “Wienerisch” or Viennese. With the entrance of the folk song, the movement quickly becomes bitter and colder; death is approaching.

From this nostalgic and wistful movement, we plunge into the more dramatic and funereal second. The allegro first section, which the composer designated “Catastrophe,” serves as the concerto's dramatic cadenza, building to the work’s climax. After the shattering climax, the work relaxes in a mood of resignation. Berg quotes a Bach chorale “Es ist genug,” (It is Enough) from his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ( Eternity, you thundering word), a cantata of farewell and acceptance of death.

The conclusion, marked “Deliverance,” develops the chorale theme into a rhapsodic “Requiem for Manon”. Themes from earlier sections are quoted, reflecting times past. Few other twelve-tone works have a section such as the final measures of the concerto, which quietly radiates bittersweet resignation.

As a bonus, Maestro Stern has selected American composer Carl Ruggles’ brief yet haunting and “Angels” for muted brass to open the evening. This strange, ephemeral work blends brilliantly with the mood and tone of the Berg. A fine piece of programming.

Mahler "Blumine"  (1889)
May 17-19, 2013, Asher Fisch Conducting.

Mahler’s first symphonic essay took a circuitous route in both form and content before emerging as the familiar and popular Symphony # 1 in D major.“Blumine” was once a part of this symphony but was discarded by Mahler after a few performances. After its rediscovery in 1966, it has occasionally been performed as a part of the Symphony but more frequently as a separate piece, as in this case. A little history lesson is in order so as to understand how this movement disappeared for 70 years.

Mahler first conceived of this work as “A Symphonic Poem in Two Parts” when it was premiered in Budapest in 1889. “Blumine” (although not yet labeled as such) was the second movement of this early form which is recognizable as the First Symphony but with many differences in orchestration and form. This performance was not well received so Mahler made some extensive revisions for a second performance in Hamburg in 1893. Now entitled “Titan, a Tone Poem in Symphonic Form”, the movement gained the title “Blumine” (Flowers) and remained as the second movement.

Only a couple of performances were given of this version before a  fouth performance in Berlin in 1896 where Blumine was formally struck from the score. All traces of the program and the name “Titan” were removed. The work was published in its current form in 1899 titled Symphony # 1 in D Major.

Blumine remained unperformed and lost until it was discovered in a copy of an early manuscript donated to Yale University. Benjamin Britten performed it soon after and the enterprising New Haven Symphony under conductor Frank Brieff performed and recorded it, interpolated into the definitive score as the second movement. Since then, several performances have been given and recorded of the early Budapest and Hamburg versions.

So what of the music? Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange was not too kind:

“There can be no doubt as to the authorship of ‘Blumine,’ and yet few other arguments can be stated in its favor. It is the music of a late-nineteenth-century Mendelssohn, pretty, charming, lightweight, urbane, and repetitious, just what Mahler’s music never is.”

Frankly, I kind of like the early versions with Blumine If one enjoys the lovely Adagietto of the 5th Symphony, the short interlude will also come as a quiet, simple respite among the otherwise emotionally charged atmosphere of the symphony. I do agree with de La Grange that it is a bit like Mendelssohn scored it with a decidedly late century palate. However. it looks forward to Mahler’s grander creations such as the aforementioned 5th and the 3rd’s posthorn serenade.

Several fine recordings of the Symphony with Blumine are available, most including Blumine as an appendix, notably Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle on RCA and Neeme Jarvi/Royal Scottish Orchestra on Chandos. Haydn House, an LP to CD reissue source, has the original Frank Brieff/New Haven recording, for the most curious.

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