Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kansas City Symphony: Fisch Conducts Mozart, Mahler and Brahms

Israeli conductor/pianist Asher Fisch, long time music director at the Vienna Volksoper and Israeli Opera and soon Music Director of the West Australia SO, returned to Kansas City this weekend, May 17-19 with one of the more interesting and unusual concerts of the season. The concert opened with Mahler's gently lyrical “Blumine” once part of the first version of the Symphony # 1. The first half concluded with the Piano Concerto # 17 K453 by Mozart with Fisch as soloist and conductor. The program concluded with the Brahms Piano Quartet in G op 25 as orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg.

In “On the Horizon” I discussed the background of the Mahler and Schoenberg, noting that performances of these pieces are not exactly everyday occurrences.

Lucky for those in attendance, Fisch led a gentle, flowing, detailed and overall very successful performance. The mysterious opening for tremolo strings was pure atmosphere, barely at audible level, a texture and feeling more than just mere notes. This was a restrained “Blumine” as it should be, a pastoral interlude singing and a touch melancholy. Special kudos for principal trumpet Gary Schutza's lyrical and tonally beautiful which is the backbone of this fine little tone poem. The final moments of the work, with hushed strings in the highest register and the final quiet flourish of the harp was magical.

Fisch and the orchestra continued the concert with the alternately mercurial and dramatic Mozart Concerto # 17, written and premiered in 1784. The opening movement is typical of Mozart's gracefully lyric style. Fisch is an accomplished pianist with a singing tone and fine technique. The orchestra winds were in their usual fine form, deftly interjecting and commenting on the piano, especially in the charming and witty opening measures of the movement.

The middle andante, in contrast, is one of Mozart's more dramatic concerto movements. Fisch took the movement at a particularly brisk tempo which could of worked, but with his concentration divided between playing and conducting, it led to a some shaky moments and tentative entrances. Fisch was sensitive to the drama of the movement, accenting and highlighting the more dramatic passages. The Variations-Finale unfolded with the same charm and brisk tempo of the preceding movements.

What was missing was the feeling of unbridled melody and graceful expression that is a hallmark of a successful Mozart performance. Fisch and the orchestra were certainly not flat or dull, but the extra effort in keeping the orchestra and piano together, led to an overall restrained and mechanical feeling.

Fisch and the orchestra relished the Brahms Quartet, revealing the genius of Schoenberg's orchestration and Brahms' sense of form and order. A brisk performance, which is always a good thing in Brahms, Fisch and his forces still took time to luxuriate in the melodies that flowed from Brahms' fertile imagination. Fisch and the orchestra brought out all the Brahmsian character, drama and charm inherent in the Quartet. Fisch's attention to detail aided by Schoenberg's spot lit orchestrations illuminated how Brahms deftly crafted the first movement's melodic content from the opening declamatory motif. The Intermezzo and Trio, functioning as a scherzo, was well controlled yet infused with the right degree of moto perpetuo force. The grand Andante con Moto was swiftly flowing as an movement so marked should be. The concluding Rondo, marked “alla zingarese” was a total tour-de-force, Fisch and the orchestra pulling out all stops for a bravura finale. Even Schoenberg's xylophone and percussion touches seemed totally appropriate and part of the thick, rich texture instead of being a strange afterthought.

A thoughtful program of some off the beaten path works, rare and quite well done.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What I am Listening to Today

Havergal Brian (1876-1972) is one of those composers more notorious and talked about than actually heard.  Every so often, he is "rediscovered" and a new batch of recordings and performances pop up here and there. Then his star fades again for a while... waiting for a new champion.

I have managed to be a fan of this fascinating and quirky composer since my college days. A former University of Illinois music student Paul Rapoport (who went on to be a popular record reviewer with Fanfare Magazine and a noted professor of music in his native Canada) had left behind research and scores in the Music Library which I managed to find while ignoring my more immediate studies. Curious I located some pirate recordings of live performances and at the time the only commercial recording of his music, the 10th and 21st Symphonies.

Devotees of the "Guinness Book of World Records" know Brian as the composer of the longest Symphony, his massive Symphony # 1 "Gothic" written in the 1920's. Instead of quietly retiring, Brian spent his 80s and 90's composing, 32 symphonies in all, 20 of them written after his 80th birthday.

The disc capturing my attention is part of a series of Brian works on Dutton Epoch with Martyn Brabbins and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With a Proms concert of the Gothic under his belt, Brabbins is the latest Brian champion. A second disc with the Violin Concerto, Symphony # 13, Third English Suite and the "Tinker's Wedding" Overture is also available.

The 10th Symphony in one movement from 1954 has the frequent dotted rhythms (making the music a bit "Clunky" to some), large orchestra and percussion effects characteristic of many of his symphonies. The sound and performance are miles ahead of the 1972 recording which used a school orchestra, albeit a fine one. Brabbins' performance also seems a bit livelier and concentrated than the 1972 Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra performance under James Loughran, likely due to the more accomplished orchestra.

Receiving its recorded premiere, the Symphony # 30 is a product of  Brian's incredible later years. In 1967, 91 year old Brian had written his 27th, 28th and 29th Symphonies and then completed the 30th. Although it is almost the same length as the 10th, the 30th seems more compact. Chromatic, a bit wild, dramatic and "fantastic", the 30th is a prime example of his late works.  The final coda is worth the price of the disc itself, if nothing else, Brian new how to end a symphony in spectacular and often unexpected fashion; a new recording of the Symphony # 21 would be most welcome as it contains his most interesting and surprising ending.

The 1964 Concerto for Orchestra is a compact 15 minute orchestral tour-de-force in the vein of Bartok and Hindemith's examples of the genre. All the Brian characteristics, the colorful percussion and brass especially, are there in this first recording of this almost unknown work.

The English Suite # 3 dates from 1921 yet is every bit a product of the composer. Colorful, more pastoral than the later symphonies and more Strauss and Wagner influenced than the later works, this is another welcome first recording.

Admittedly, Brian's music, like anchovies and scotch, is an acquired taste. What does it say about me that I like all three?

Havergal Brian
Symphony # 10 in c 1954
English Suite # 3 1919-1921
Concerto for Orchestra 1964
Symphony # 30 1967

Martyn Brabbins
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7267

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.

Thursday, May 02, 2013


A review of the world premiere of the new chamber opera "Darwin" by the newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. At www.Icareifyoulisten.com