Tag Archives: Brahms

Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

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

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

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

Midcoast Shines in Romantic Program

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

As a hopeless Romantic, I went to the Franco Center Saturday night expecting to hear live performances of three of my favorite works— the “Light Cavalry” Overture, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C-minor.

What I was unprepared for was the quality of the performances by the Midcoast Symphony under the direction of Rohan Smith. They would have done credit to any well-known professional orchestra; from an “amateur” ensemble they were little short of miraculous. I urge any music lover who can get there, to attend a repeat of the program at the Orion Center in Topsham today (Oct. 23) at 2:30.

It reminded me of Schopenhauer’s paradox, to the effect that we admire those who practice an art for money and denigrate those who do it for love, calling them “amateurs.”

The von Suppé, which I believe was sometimes played on “The Lone Ranger” in addition to the “William Tell” Overture, is the epitome of a canter cross-country with some light excuse. As the general said of fox hunting; “all the excitement of war and only a quarter of its danger.” It is pure delight, with just the hint of a melancholy center to contrast with the beginning and end.

The overture, of course, is a popular war horse of the repertoire, but difficult to do well at an exciting tempo. The Midcoast’s swash-buckling rendition was well-nigh perfect.

The Rachmaninoff, equally familiar, was equally well played, with Jonathan Bass at the piano tossing off coruscating clouds of notes, matched in brilliance by the orchestra. There was a little tug-of-war about tempo at the beginning, but that only added to a suspenseful performance as the composer, knowingly aided by Smith, teased the audience with hints at the final movement’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

After the Center’s traditional crepes and wine during intermission came the greatest test of any orchestra, a Brahms symphony. In this performance, Smith succeeded in conveying the composer’s debt to Beethoven (and Bach), without compromising the forward thrust of the score.

The symphony is full of pitfalls, from lush orchestration to demanding percussion parts to pizzicati by the full swing section, all of them negotiated without a hitch. What one really worries about, however, are the heavenly horn calls preceding the ode to joy of the final movement. Those of principal Carolyn Kanicki were enough to bring tears to your eyes. The other players in the all-female section are Beth Almquist, Cynthia Harkleroad and Sarah Rodgers.

Brahms may not outdo Beethoven in his own “Ode to Joy,” but he achieves the same triumphant effect without the last resort of composers—the human voice.

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

Piano Series Ends on a High Note

Pianist Jean-François Latour
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
May 27, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Serendipity. I was talking with Lewis Kaplan the other day about the new Bach festival he is organizing for Portland next month (June 19-24) and learned that he would be playing the famous Bach Chaconne from the Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. I mentioned that I loved the Bach-Busoni piano transcription. He thought it too florid and virtuosic and recommended the version by Brahms for the left hand alone,

I downloaded the music and was reading it when I learned that pianist Jean-François Latour would be playing the Brahms version on May 24 at the Gendron Franco Center (formerly the Franco-American Heritage Center) in Lewiston. Coincidence? I don’t think so; once one begins something, other events seem to fall in line.

Unfortunately, I thought the concert was at 7:30 rather than 7:00, so I missed some of the Chaconne. I did hear enough, from a very fine musician, to agree with Kaplan. Transcribing the piece for the left hand imitates the difficulties of the score for a violinist, without adding to or subtracting from anything of its character.

Bach, who liked to transcribe his own works for other instruments, would have approved.

Latour’s recital was the sixth and final one of this season’s piano series at the Franco Center. The recitals, which attract outstanding talents from all over the world, are too little noted outside Lewiston-Auburn, and well worth the drive from Portland. Besides, there’s cake and champagne with the artist after the performance.

Most of the program was devoted to Brahms, including, in addition to the Chaconne, three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and the 16 Waltzes of Opus 39. For a French-Canadian pianist (He was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and studied at Peabody and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto) Latour shows a remarkable affinity for Brahms, adding a brilliance to the works that is too often lost in four-square or overly Romantic interpretations. He called the waltzes a necklace of diamonds, and they were.

What is most remarkable about his readings is their emphasis on inner voices, sometimes two or three at once. In Brahms at his best there is sometimes a high-pitched secondary melody that hovers over the work like a bright cloud. The only thing close to it is the treble voice that seems to appear out of thin air in Tuvan throat singing, or the overtones of a didgeridoo. Latour evokes it better than most pianists I have heard.

The program concluded with three posthumous Schubert Impromptus (D.946), which demonstrated an affinity as deep as that for Brahms. Schubert’s mercurial mood (and key) changes came and went like fair-weather cumuli in a summer sky, and no one has decoded the complex rhythms of the final Allegro with more clarity.

My favorite has always been the second Impromptu. I remain convinced that it is the origin of the famous song “Lilly Marlene,” but better composed and less obvious. Latour received a well-deserved standing ovation for his performance of all three.

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.