Tag Archives: Shostakovich

Philharmonia Quartett, Berlin

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Hannaford Hall, USM
March 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

An encore by a string quartet! The first I have heard in many years of listening to chamber music, and not a lollipop either, but the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6.

The occasion was the conclusion of a Sunday afternoon concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, under the auspices of Portland Ovations.

The quartet had just concluded the Beethoven No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, to a standing ovation, when one of the members said something to the effect of : “Well, you liked that, so we’ll give you some more.”

I had been wracking my brains for what element  makes the quartet so special —balance, individualization of parts, resonance, microtone precision, passion, dynamics, what some have called “smoothness,” etc. etc., without coming to any obvious conclusion.

After the encore, I saw them entering the elevator, chatting like a group of high school students on a senior trip, and what had been under my nose during the encore, suddenly came to mind: They actually love what they’re doing. It’s what holds them together. I had seen that during the encore, but their cohesiveness was emphasized by their obvious comradery off stage.

The program itself was fascinating, beginning with a Mozart quartet, No. 8 in F Major (KV.168), that was light and lively, the composer making fun of convention with a fugue whose theme was so rapid that it defied the rules of counterpoint.

My favorite, however, was the late Shostakovich No. 15 in E-flat Minor (Op 144). There were no flies in Hannaford Hall, so I couldn’t check the validity of the composer’s dictum that the first movement should be so boring that it would make flies drop dead.

I found it fascinating, an exploration of what could be accomplished with the fewest possible notes, played sostenuto within a severely limited range of pitches. It was extremely effective in a macabre sort of way and lent itself to all sorts of Shostakovian transformations, from heart-rending shrieks to summer insects, to one of his famous sardonic waltzes, to, finally, a dirge to the tune of Happy Birthday.
One would have thought it another poke in the eye to Stalin, except that the dictator had already been dead 20 years when it was written. I think Shostakovich missed him.

I wasn’t as happy with the late Beethoven, also a No. 15, but in A Minor (Op. 132). Not because of its execution, which was well-nigh perfect, but because of my blind spot for these revered productions.

The “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” (Note the comma. The movement is in the Lydian mode, not the convalescent.) goes on forever. One can imagine God saying: “Enough, Ludwig, I get the message.”

The final movement is livelier, but its false cadences are enough to drive one mad. Sorry. Mea culpa. I really have come to like the Grosse Fugue.

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

A Wild and Crazy Night at the Bowdoin International Music Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Hall
July 11
by Christopher Hyde
The Bowdoin International Music Festival (BIMF) is to be commended for bringing some of he world’s finest string quartets to the Monday Showcase concerts at Studzinsky Hall. It is not very professional, however, to omit program notes for such concerts, as was the case on July 11.
As far as I can determine. and I searched he website and program exhaustively, there were no printed nor internet notes available. Such notes are a lifeline for the average music lover, and should never be omitted in hopes that concert-goers will look up the works on the internet before attending.
The Haydn Quartet No. 63 in B flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, is nicknamed “Sunrise,” due to the rising theme over sustained chords that begins the first movement. Something for the audience to listen for.
Knowing how late the work is in Haydn’s opus would prepare the listener for its dense texture, thorough composition and almost contemporary feel. It is also a bit academic for my tastes, but the Ariel gave it everything they had, making it sound better than it is.
It might help to know that Bartok’s first string quartet, Sz 40, resulted from an unhappy love affair with a violinist. And what is that bullfrog ostinato plucked on the cello strings all about?
“Bartók’s finale has several recurring motifs, the most important being an eighth-note ostinato, heralding a similar episode in the celebrated Allegro barbaro for piano solo (1911) and which in some form recurs in each of the composer’s subsequent quartets, and – climactically – a quotation of the Hungarian folksong “Fly, Peacock, Fly” (the subject also of Kodály’s later “Peacock” Variations). The song’s theme is the liberation of the spirit: a program which, it may not be fanciful to suggest, applies as well to this entire, liberating work.” (note by critic Halsey Stevens.)
Even without that synopsis, one could revel in the intricate counterpoint of the first movement, which rivals Bach in its complexity and inventiveness. The Ariel took that very seriously, but lightened up in later sections, especially those in which Bartok imitates Debussy.
They completely let their hair down, with pianist Elinor Freer, in a delightful rendition of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57. It has a wonderful fugue, straight out of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, after Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” The Scherzo, however, pushes the limits of classical music in its rollicking craziness, complete with a tonic section that sounds like Liszt on a bad day.
It won the Stalin Prize in 1941 and has been popular since its introduction.
Freer is a natural with Shostakovich. I’d like to compare her rendition of the preludes and fugues to that of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

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

A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Overheard as the capacity audience left Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon: “That was the best concert I’ve ever heard here.”

Well, not quite, but close. Music lovers jammed the hall to hear pianist Andrew von Oeyen Play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

They were not disappointed, but it was music director Robert Moody’s programming of two unusual works before the concerto that made for a near-perfect afternoon.

The first was a mysterious agglomeration of eight works made sometime after 1956 by Dmitri Shostakovich, entitled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1. Some are straightforward marches and dances, with typical Shostakovich surprises and strange instrumentation..

Others are parodies of conventional waltzes, German bands and circus music. All are thoroughly delightful, but the waltzes take the cake, piling musical cliche on cliche until one expects the entire edifice to collapse under the weight of schmaltz. It doesn’t, and Shostakovich writes it all with a straight face, as if he were honestly trying to outdo Emile Waldteufel. One of them reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s “Weinerschnitzel Waltz,” with unlimited orchestral resources.

The orchestra obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience and its virtuosity at rapid tempo was little short of amazing.

Kurt Weill’s use of hackneyed forms, in his Suite from “The Three-Penny Opera,” was equally imaginative, but in the service of a darker vision. It was equally well played, especially the false fugue of the Overture and the flute and violin solos in “Polly’s Lied.” I had just written about Nico Muhle’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” and Weill’s concluding piece, “Kanonen,” with the same double meaning, was pure synchronicity.

Andrew von Oeyen’s rendition of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 was exciting and extremely forceful. His power, however, has both advantages and drawbacks. In the first movement the piano was often in danger of drowning out the orchestra, and a dynamic range starting at mezzo forte doesn’t leave much room for a crescendo. Fortunately, the pianist’s fortissimo is so strong that the climaxes still work.

On the plus side, von Oeyen worked well in some of the more delicate dialogs with other instruments, while his volume —and some idiosyncratic emphases— brought out passages obscured in most readings of this work. He also has the quick wit to get out of trouble unnoticed. The passion in the closing bars was palpable and brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet instantaneously.

Then he spoiled the whole thing with an encore. An encore to the Rachmaninoff Third is bad enough, like putting catsup on foie gras, but the piece he chose had enough schmaltz to make Shostakovich proud. I wish guest artists wouldn’t do that, ruining the after effects of a masterpiece, but the practice seems to be becoming more widespread.

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