Wednesday, May 08, 2013

On the Horizon

With the Mahler 6th, Rachmaninoff “The Bells”, Scriabin “Poeme of Ecstasy” and Carmina Burana in the history books, one might think it is all down hill now with the 2012-2013 Kansas City Symphony season. But still to come in May are these incredible, lesser known gems that a serious concert goer should not miss. Stick around in June for the finale, the massive Richard Strauss “Eine Alpensinfonie”,

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 with a decidedly late 19th century palate. However. it looks forward to Mahler’s grander creations such as the aforementioned 5th  Adagietto 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.

Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet (1861, orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg 1937)
May 17-19 Ascher Fisch conducting.

On the same concert as “Blumine”, Ascher Fisch has programmed another rare and unusual work, the 1937 orchestration of Brahms' Piano Quartet # 1 in g composed in 1861.

When asked why he orchestrated this piece Schoenberg replied:

“My reasons: I like the piece. It is seldom played. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

My intentions: To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. To watch carefully all the laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate them, which are only known to musicians educated in his environment."

Schoenberg famously considered Brahms a more “progressive” composer than Wagner or Liszt and relished Brahms' ability to create a large scale work or movement with a limited amount of material. Although every note is Brahms', Schoenberg's orchestration is considerably more colorful with deft use of percussion and brass. Schoenberg uses this augmented orchestration to bring out harmonic relationships, motifs and inner voices that are hidden in the more monochromatic Piano Quartet version. Schoenberg was a master orchestrator and his jewel like arrangement really does allow the listener to “hear everything”. As in the scene where Dorothy wakes up in Oz, Schoenberg's color brings the work to life.

Robert Craft's classic recording with the Chicago Symphony is still around on Sony and Simon Rattle has made a specialty of the piece with both his Birmingham and Berlin orchestras.

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.

There are many great recordings of this work to choose from, starting with the 1936 live broadcast with the original soloist Louis Krasner with Anton Webern conducting the BBC SO. Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman and Gidon Kremer have all had turns at the work, all recommended.

As a bonus, Maestro Stern has selected American composer Carl Ruggles’ brief yet haunting “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.

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