Tag Archives: Beethoven

DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland Symphony Plays a Memorable Fifth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Are there any undiscovered masterpieces? There may be, but if so, they are few and far between. The vast majority of music vanishes after its first performance, if any, and is relegated to the archives, where it languishes until “rediscovered,” only to vanish again.

These unoriginal musings were prompted by the performance at Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night of Erich Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major (Op. 35) by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody,

Korngold is best known as an Oscar-winning composer of movie music, although he began his career as a child prodigy turned composer in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic).

The orchestra gave the work its best effort, and the soloist, Christoph Koncz, knows film music inside and out, having played the hero in “The Red Violin.” Still, through the entire performance, I was picturing scenes from “Schindler’s List.”

Was it merely association of the composer with cinematography? Doesn’t all music conjure up images of some kind?

Not necessarily. (See Beethoven’s Fifth below.) Korngold, however, seems to be playing to the audience and calculating the effect of the scene, rather than letting the music speak for itself. One result is a lack of passion and self-assertiveness in the violin part.. It was beautifully played by Koncz, but its primary characteristic was a kind of wistful sweetness, pleasant enough, but wearing after a while.

I think it was Rilke who cautioned against journalism if one wanted to be a poet. The former rubs off too much on the latter, and the same thing seems to have happened to Korngold.

Tuesday’s program began with Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture, one of my favorite compositions, played a little too fast and without enough attention to its striking effects. It could be that opera and abstract music don’t mix either.

I have purposely left Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for last because nothing in the world remains to be said about it. It is a towering masterpiece that never loses its freshness, even after being played as a theme song on “Judge Judy.” One begins by admiring all the permutations of the “V” for Victory motif and ends in absolute awe and sometimes transfiguration.

As in all of its performances so far of the Beethoven cycle, the orchestra played above itself in every respect, earning a tumultuous standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Definitive Performances By Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I wondered how Portland Ovations had managed to attract such a large audience to Hannaford Hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As soon as I heard the first bars of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (Op. 16), it all became clear. These people must have heard artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center before, and knew that the afternoon’s performances would define what to listen for in years too come.

The Society comprises prominent musicians from around the world, who collaborate as trios, quartets, chamber orchestras or other ensembles to perform works from the entire chamber music repertoire. Appearing under the auspices of Portland Ovations were: Gilles Vonsattel, piano, Arnaud Sussmann , violin, Paul Neubauer, viola and Paul Watkins, cello.

They played a program centered around the Dvorák Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, including works that influenced or were influenced by that seminal composition. And what playing. They might have been together for a century to have developed such a degree of coordination. One could see them smiling at each other when listening for the beats that would define a microtone of pitch differential.

The early Beethoven quartet was simply gorgeous, perhaps more melodic and easily accessible on first hearing than his later works. One could see why Dvorak might have loved it.

Everything about the performance was almost perfect—the balance between instruments, precise entrances and phrase endings (the latter more difficult than anything else), dynamics, lyrical singing tones where appropriate, and so on, but most compelling was the sheer joy of playing. The overall impression was one of confidence and solidity, forming the basis of free expression. And they retuned between every movement.

After the Beethoven came the Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10, written by Ernõ Dohnányi in 1902, and making even greater use of folk motifs than Dvorák. While not in the same league as the Beethoven quartet, it was fascinating in its innovations, beginning with a melody over a bagpipe drone in the first bars, and ending with a strong sforzando. Its tonal ambiguity made one realize just how much folk music provided a doorway to atonality.

Too much perfection is inhuman, so I was happy to hear a single wrong note from the piano during the passionate opening movement of the Dvorak piano quartet. (Maybe he did it on purpose.) The rest was a definitive rendering of one of the most melodic works in the repertoire.

Sometimes it was bit too lush, as in the best known and repetitive melodic passages, accompanied by a treble piano obligato. It conjured up memories of the Plaza Palm Court and its strolling musicians. But that was the fault of the composer, not his interpreters.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Midcoast Symphony Changes the Climate

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Center, Topsham
Jan. 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It takes a Northerner to really appreciate Spanish music. The Maine residents who play in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra must have a really passionate desire to experience warmer climes, or at least to re-create them among the snowdrifts. How else to explain the almost miraculous performances of de Falla, Ravel and Chabrier that conductor Rohan Smith elicited from the band on Sunday afternoon at Orion Center for the Performing Arts?

The final works on the program, two suites from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, “The Three Cornered Hat,” resulted in a rare standing ovation from a near capacity audience. It was well deserved. I have never heard the Midcoast perform as well in all its 15-year history. Everything–tempo, dynamics, orchestral color and elaborate rhythmical pulses–came together perfectly. The exciting orchestration sounded at times like that of Rimsky- Korsakov.

The woodwinds were particularly striking, sometimes rolling down the scale from flute to bassoon and back again. It was de Falla as he is never heard on a recording. It made me re-think my opinion of him as a minor national colorist.

All three of the Spanish-flavored pieces, two of them by Frenchmen, are often selected by top-notch orchestras to display their virtuosity. The Midcoast outdid them all, if not in technical perfection then in contagious enthusiasm.

Another superb advertisement for live music came in the form of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” which began life as one of that composer’s fiendishly difficult piano pieces. One knows how complex the polyrhythms are when even a highly accomplished percussionist can be seen counting. Ravel never wrote anything trivial–and that includes the Bolero–but the Alborada is often performed like an insignificant piece of atmospheric writing.

Nay, not so, but far otherwise. It is musical to a fault, exploring the far reaches of contrasts, with brass sforzandos like lightning bolts through a cane jungle of pizzicato. Smith, in opening remarks, characterized it as both grotesque and mysterious. As played by the Midcoast it was both of these, and more.

The program opened with Emmanuel Chabrier’s well-known “España,” which concerned me a little. It was together, lively and up-tempo, but some of its striking brass accents were slightly off the mark. Maybe the players’ fingers and lips were cold, since the work improved vastly as it went along.

The orchestra really came into its own with the next offering, the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. The Portland Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work as part of its three-year cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, and I must confess that I preferred the Midcoast’s version. The so-called minuet, which is actually a scherzo, was appropriately wild, and the beauty of the finale was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Technically, the Beethoven, in its use of sforzando-like strong accents, resembled enough of the Spanish works to make it fit right in with the rest of the program.

Schopenhauer once questioned why we denigrate those who practice an art out of love —amateurs— while praising those who do it for money —professionals. Why indeed?

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.