"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 31, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (1): Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

At the start I have to make a confession: I am not an "opera fan." I prefer abstract symphonic and chamber music (in my view the highest peak attainable in music) to music depending on words and stories. The only operas I could stomach so far were those by Mozart (Mozart's music always is complex and in his last five operas his characterization is deep and subtle), and single arias from Baroque operas by for example Handel and Vivaldi (but not the whole operas because their stories are too silly and the characters too flat). I can't stand 19th c. belcanto (Donizetti, Bellini), Grand Opera (Meyerbeer), German Romanticism (Weber), Verdi or Wagner (all those grown-up people strutting around with card-board shields and spears and pretending to be mythical deities, in static but blown-up stories that move at a glacial pace and never seem to end).

But then I discovered 20th c. opera. From Richard Strauss via Alban Berg to John Adams, these modern operas are mature and serious, and I discovered quite a few that are simply fascinating. What also makes a difference is that 20th c. composers were in the first place symphonists and not opera specialists, so that the orchestra is center stage - the symphonic aspect is often more important than the singers. In addition, most 20th c. composers have given up on individual arias, choruses or set pieces, but instead build one overarching musical edifice; a sort of declamation takes the place of belcanto singing, making those operas a more realistic form of theater.

Here is the first of my favorite 20th century operas:

[Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Let's first set one thing straight: Debussy has often been called an "Impressionist" - but Impressionism, which was a trend in painting, had long been surpassed by other fashions when Debussy wrote his music. As also his preference for poets as Verlaine and Maeterlinck demonstrates, Debussy was first and for all a Symbolist - the major trend in literature, painting and music around the turn of the century. As Constant Lambert says in Music Ho!, "By suspending a chord in space, as it were, Debussy recalls the methods of the literary Symbolists."

So not surprisingly, Debussy's only completed opera is based on a Symbolist, allegorical play by Nobel-Prize winning Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck (whose plays were very popular around that time). The radical novelty Debussy brought to opera - and why Pelléas et Mélisande became the first truly modern opera - is that he used the play as it was (only making some judicious cuts), having the original prose text declaimed over an ever-moving orchestration, staying close to the rhythms of natural speech in French (this was something radically new - so far, professional librettists had always been employed to fashion prose texts into metrical verse - for how do you fit melodies to unmetred prose?). There are no arias, choruses or set pieces. This enables Debussy to capture the subtleties of human behavior, with the orchestra's delicate texture playing a bigger expressive part than the singers. Instead of using leitmotifs in the unsubtle "visiting card technique" of Wagner, Debussy employs them as a way to draw musical shapes that represent his characters' psychological states. This resulted in the single most innovative opera from the fin-de-siècle. Not all contemporaries were enthusiastic, though - the opera was also seen as "full of the germs of decadence and death."

[The opera Pelléas et Mélisande painted by 
Edmund Blair Leighton]

The music itself is indeed often ambiguous and undecided, as if symbolical of Maeterlinck's pessimistic denial of free will. The emphasis is on quietness and subtlety, allowing the words of the libretto to be heard and understood; there are only a few fortissimos in the entire score. But the lack of operatic refulgence does not mean the music is monotonous: the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande are filled with passion, and the grim fourth act, when Golaud takes his revenge, is violent but also filled with ecstasy as the lovers, knowing they are doomed, embrace each other for the last time. Debussy's example influenced many later composers who edited their own libretti from existing prose plays, such as Richard Strauss in Salome, Alban Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu and Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Die Soldaten.

What had changed by 1900 is that the dominance of the "opera specialists" was over - Puccini was the last traditional opera composer. Debussy, Strauss, and others were instrumental composers who came from a different sonic world than traditional opera and who dared make radical changes - Pelléas et Mélisande has little to say to people who like narrative thrust and self-contained arias. But after some years of divided reception, by 1910 it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.

[Claude Debussy, by Donald Sheridan - Image Wikipedia]

The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a sensuously sinister exploration of sexuality. In the mystical land of Allemonde, Golaud is out hunting when he finds a mysterious young woman by a pond, who is defined be her beautiful, but abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure (and fetishized in both play and opera): Mélisande. She has lost her crown in the water but does not wish to retrieve it. She keeps her identity and origins hidden, and yet Golaud falls instantly in love with her. He marries her and takes her to his family castle, where she wins the favor of Arkel, Golaud's aged father and king of Allemonde, who is ill. However, she soon falls in love with the young Pelléas, Golaud's stepbrother and Pelléas also becomes enchanted by his sister-in-law's beauty. They meet by a fountain, where Mélisande rather symbolically loses her wedding ring in the deep water.

Later, the two gradually grow closer to each other, especially when Mélisande from a window in the castle tower lets her extraordinary long hair be caressed by Pelléas standing on the ground below - he even binds her tresses to a tree. They are caught by Golaud, but he is not suspicious (yet) and as the older man thinks this is just a children's game. But as Mélisande is pregnant, he warns Pelléas not to make her tired. Golaud however feels his brother is hiding something from him and interrogates his young son, Yniold, about how the couple behaves when alone together. Afterwards, he has the boy stand on his shoulders and spy on the couple through Mélisande's window. Through the boy's innocent answers he now is awakened to the reality of the situation.

Next, as the old king has recovered from his illness, Pelléas is requested to go on a trip. He asks Mélisande to come to the well in the garden at night to say goodbye to her. In the meantime, Golaud quarrels with Mélisande in front of Arkel, dragging her around the room by her long hair, and she tells her father-in-law that her husband doesn't love her anymore. At night, Pelléas and Mélisande meet at the well and confess their love for each other. When they kiss, Golaud appears from the shadows and kills his brother, severely wounding Mélisande.

In the last act, Mélisande has given birth to a baby girl. She lies on the bed under a white sheet with her gorgeous hair flowing down to the ground. Golaud presses her to tell the truth about her relation with Pelléas. After maintaining her innocence, Mélisande dies, leaving Arkel to comfort the sobbing Golaud.

The Maeterlinck play, by the way, inspired several other contemporary composers: Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius both wrote incidental music for it, and Arnold Schoenberg based a lush, late-Romantic symphonic poem on the tragic story. But Debussy's conception is the greatest of them all.

Recording watched and listened to: Pierre Boulez (conductor) and Peter Stein (production) with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, with Alison Hagley (Mélisande), Neil Archer (Pélleas), Donald Maxwell (Golaud) and Kenneth Cox (Arkel) on Deutsche Grammophon (DVD 1992). Peter Stein's production is uncluttered and vaguely suggestive rather than becoming too literal. The scenery and dresses are often dark, but also lustrous, like black lacquer. Alison Hagley plays Mélisande as a woman-child with a mysterious smile. She also sings gorgeously. Neill Archer is an appealingly young Pelléas.

Twentieth Century Opera: (1) Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (2) Salome by Strauss (3) Die Gezeichneten by Schreker (4) Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky (5) Die tote Stadt by Korngold (6) Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky (7)

March 26, 2016

Best Piano Concertos from the Twentieth Century (Part One)

1. Ferruccio Busoni, Piano Concerto in C Major Op 39 (1904)
In its grand Wagnerian conception (there is even a male chorus in the operatic last movement) this is in fact still a very 19th c. concerto, although there are also associations with the gargantuan Mahler symphonies. Busoni conceived his concerto in five movements. The first, third and fifth movements are large, serious conceptions - the third slow movement is the emotional heart of the work. The second and fourth movements are both Italian dances, tarantella, each using Neapolitan folk song. The last movement incorporates an (invisible) male chorus. In this way, the concerto both possesses great nobility and dignity while on the other hand remaining brilliant fun. One could call it a combination of the native Italian and German-influenced sides of Busoni. But while it is huge, it is also modest, as much of the piano line remains hidden as part of the orchestral texture. A sincere and heartfelt concerto.
[Marc-Andre Hamelin at Youtube; Garrick Ohlsson on Telarc]


2. Frederick Delius, Piano Concerto in C Minor (1904 / 1907)
Delius is an acquired taste. When I first listened to him, in my early twenties, I felt lost in the formless, lyrical soup of his music and hankered after clearer contours. But today his music fits me like a glove - we probably get more mellow and lyrical with the years... The piano concerto was the first concertante work Delius wrote and it had a rather troubled genesis, going through various versions. Today, the version in three movements from 1904 is generally considered as the most interesting and most typically "Delian" (in the last and "standard" version of 1907 the piano part was at Delius' request rewritten by a pianist-friend, but it is more Chopin than Delius). It is a full-blooded romantic concerto, but without any empty pianistic display, so although this is an early work, we already can hear Delius' mature lyrical and meditative style. Both themes of the first movement show the influence of the Afro-American sounds which influenced Delius so much during his Florida sojourns. The central Largo movement has a sonorous piano part, and the third movement (which was discarded in the 1907 version) ends with a grand tutti in Delius's finest orchestral splendor. Perhaps because of the many revisions, Delius' piano concerto is less well-known than his violin concerto or cello concerto, but it is an appealing piece of music that certainly deserves to be heard more. The 1904 version lasts about 30 min.
[Howard Shelley on Chandos and Piers Lane on Hyperion (three movement version 1904); Justin Bird on Youtube (standard version 1907)]


3. Max Reger, Piano Concerto In F Minor Op 114 (1910)
A sprawling, serious, three-movement concerto lasting roughly 40 minutes, with a tempestuous first movement, an elegiac and delicate second movement and a vigorous third movement full of "clenched teeth" exuberance. The heroic first movement starts with a portentous orchestral introduction and bold first statement by the piano. The piano is fully integrated with the orchestra. The thick-set textures and chromatism are typical of Reger. In dramatic seriousness and complexity this work is equal to the second Brahms concerto. Few composers however have been as misunderstood as Max Reger, whose music has often been regarded as heavy and unrelievedly contrapuntal. This is a massive, tragic concerto.
[Barry Douglas on RCA Victor]

4. Ernst von Dohnányi, Variations on a Nursery Theme for Piano and Orchestra (1916)
This is pure fun, a tongue-in-cheek humorous and playful concerto: an introduction, statement-of-theme and then eleven variations on the nursery rhyme tune “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” ("Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman"). The pompous introduction is full of Wagnerian gestures and faux pathos, until a cymbal clash brings the piano on stage with the nostalgic old nursery tune, an unexpected contrast which will make you smile. What follows is a witty set of variations often alluding to the musical style of other composers. The first variation is simple and innocent, the third one romantic, bringing to mind Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, the sixth variation scampers along, the seventh variation is a boisterous waltz, variation eight alludes to the march from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony and the pathos-laden tenth variation hearkens back to the Wagnerian opening. In contrast, the eleventh variation sports ethereal harmonies which allude to Debussy. Dohnányi aptly wrote on the score "to the enjoyment of friends of humor, to the annoyance of the others."
[Howard Shelley on Chandos]


5. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor Op 16 (1913 / 1923)
This concerto carries two dates: it was originally written and performed in 1913, but in WWI the score was lost, and in in 1923, after writing his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev reconstructed it from memory, but also altered so many elements, that it became in fact a new work, his real "fourth concerto." Prokofiev gave the new version more depth, but he also kept the original piano-athletics, making this one of the most challenging of all piano concertos. Perhaps that is why it has always been in the shadow of Prokofiev's other concertos, at least until the 1970s, when it crept to the edge of the repertoire. The concerto is in four movements, the second movement a devilish perpetuum mobile and the third a sinister march and another piece of fierce motorism. In a sense both these movements are intermezzos between the more expansive first movement and finale, both of which feature huge cadenzas as their focal point. The whole concerto is imbued with something like the grinding harshness of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite of 1915. It is a dark concerto (dedicated to the memory of a friend of Prokofiev's at the St. Petersburg Conservatory who had committed suicide) imbued with a wild temperament.
[Yefim Bronfman on Youtube; Michel Beroff on Warner Music]

[Prokofiev by Matisse]

6. Erich Korngold, Piano Concerto in C Minor for the Left Hand (1923)
In the 1920s, Korngold stood at the apex of his fame (he was the most performed composer after Richard Strauss in Austria), when he was approached by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein to compose a concerto for the left hand. Paul Wittgenstein, who was the elder brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, had lost his right arm in that terrible European war, WWI, but instead of giving up the piano, he devised novel techniques that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist. He also actively commissioned works from well-known composers of his day, including Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Paul Hindemith, but he first approached Erich Korngold, who had just written his great opera Die tote Stadt. This concerto shows Korngold at his most experimental and features a very large and colorful orchestra. It is in one movement and so concentrated in form that it makes repeated listening necessary. Harmony and tonality are highly original. As a serious composer, Korngold was almost forgotten after he fled for the Nazis and had to build up a new career as film composer in Hollywood, but today he has been fully rehabilitated. Another factor limiting the popularity of this highly unique concerto was that Wittgenstein possessed the exclusive performing rights until his death in 1961. By the way, Wittgenstein was so pleased with this work that he commissioned another composition from Korngold, the Suite for Left Hand Piano and Strings
[Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion]


7. Igor Stravinsky, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923–24)
After the Russian extravagance and barbaric Impressionism of his famous ballets in the years before WWI, Stravinsky became a neo-classicist, in contrast working with small ensembles and in more traditional forms, although he also looked for novelty in for example the interesting combination of the piano with only a wind orchestra. In this highly original concerto, eighteenth century gestures may be employed to tease the ears, but basically, this is hard driven, aggressive and percussive music, undeniably Stravinskian. In contrast, the slow movement is extremely simple and therefore all the more memorable. There is a playful episode at the end of the third and last movement, where the music stops and the piano just repeats a single chord, as if the pianist had forgotten what to play, before the final chase to the end. A vigorous and brilliant concerto.
[Alexander Toradze on Youtube; Steven Osborn on Hyperion]

[Stravinsky by Picasso]

8. Paul Hindemith,  Kammermusik No 2 for Piano and 12 Instruments, Op 36 no 1 (1924)
Another neo-classical concerto, with a small orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, string trio and double bass. It is Baroque in spirit, each movement is carried forward irresistibly by a basic pulse. The piano writing is not only highly rhythmic, but also very contrapuntal. The first movement is toccata-like, with busy motoric figurations; in the slow movement the piano spins melodic variations above an ostinato bass theme; and after a tiny scherzo the Finale resumes the energetic style of the opening movement. A very fine work, like all Hindemith's eight "Kammermusiken."
[Ronald Brautigam on Decca]

9. Ottorino Respighi, Concerto in modo misolidio for piano and orchestra (1925)
After writing his large-scale symphonic poems, Respighi looked for a way to create typically Italian music and found it in Gregorian chant. This interest is evident in his 1921 violin concerto, Concerto gregoriano, and in the present piano concerto. The piano concerto makes use of the seventh of the church modes ("modo misolidio") and carries a flavor of plainchant in its material, the source of its inspiration. It opens with a passage for the piano based on the Introit for the Mass of Ascension Day. Also the beautiful slow movement features a Gregorian melody, brought as a dialogue between piano and orchestra. The third movement is a Passacaglia, with eighteen variations, inventively bubbling music. The concerto ends with an impressively romantic climax.
[Konstantin Sherbakov on Naxos]


10. George Gershwin, Concerto in F (1925)
This is very fine music, a response to demands for a "proper concerto" after the success of the Rhapsody in Blue, avoiding programmatic content. The many themes are both uplifting and nostalgic. The concerto has been called "a masterpiece of unity under a veneer of medley," an integration achieved through cyclic form and thematic transformation. In fact, virtually every tune in the Gershwin concerto is linked to the big melody that follows the introduction to the first movement. The finale, in rondo form, also acts as a grand recapitulation of the whole work, again tying things together. With its snappy rhythms and jazzy dissonances layered over a diatonic foundation, this concerto is the avatar of the Jazz Age.
[Yuja Wang at Youtube; Orion Weiss on Naxos]


11. Aaron Copland, Piano Concerto (1926)
Jazz was in the air and Copland's concerto of 1926 forms a sort of dialogue with the Gershwin concerto. Copland starts of with a brash, dissonant fanfare, a typical "wide spaces" opening, followed by a calm if astringent Andante sostenuto. After this more traditional 1920s music, the soloist erupts with a variety of rhythmic and intervallic invocations of jazz. In other words, like in Copland's (later) clarinet concerto, a song-like first movement is linked by a cadenza to a fast and rhythmically complex final movement. But as the jazz element is not so much present in the tunes but rather as the underlying harmonic and rhythmic basis of the score, the concerto is very different from Gershwin. In this concerto we find the harder-edged Copland from the time before he deliberately popularized his style in the 1930s.
[Noel Lee on Etcetera; Bennett Lerner at Youtube]


12. Leoš Janáček, Capriccio for Piano Left-Hand and Chamber Ensemble (1926)
Another concerto for the left hand, not for Wittgenstein, but the Czech pianist Otokar Hollmann (another WWI victim). The work is scored for chamber ensemble consisting of flute and piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and a tenor tuba, resulting in an even more original sound than Stravinsky's concerto discussed above. The Capriccio consists of four movements. Privately, Janáček called it "Defiance," either referring to the attitude of the pianist who continued playing despite his loss of an arm, or to the "defiant" combination of a piano with mainly brass instruments. The virtuoso brass sound looks back to the military sound of Janáček's Sinfonietta, but is of course much more transparent here. All the same, unusual demands are placed on all individual players, not only the piano. The overall effect is indeed "capricious": whimsical and full of "willfulness and witticisms," as Janáček himself said. Delicious music in Janáček's late style.
[Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Youtube; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos]

13. Darius Milhaud, Le carnaval d'Aix, fantasy for piano & orchestra Op 83b (1926)
This music is good fun, like a real carnival. Milhaud was born in sunny southern France and in Carnival d'Aix he makes this connection explicit. However, this music was just as much inspired by Milhaud's wanderings in Brazil: the composer imagines a group of traditional Commedia dell'Arte characters from the Italian theater, dressed up for the Carnival in Rio, and then magically transported to his homeland in Aix-en-Province. It is a lighthearted work in twelve short sections, sometimes based on dance melodies as polka and tango, filled with good humor and affectionate parody. It also displays all the hallmarks of Milhaud's style: curious chromatic diversions, subtle but incisive use of dissonance within a tonal context, polytonal complexes, and vibrant rhythms inspired by jazz and South American music. Captivating music.
[Jack Gibbons on Helios]


14. Nikolai Medtner, Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor Op 50 (1927)
Nikolai Medtner wrote three concertos, the second of which is my favorite, an energetic and entrancing piece of music. Medtner was a pianist-composer like Rachmaninoff, and he also left Russia after the Soviets came to power, emigrating to the U.K. The concerto is in three movements: Toccata, Romanza and Divertimento. The outer movements are ebullient and full of kinetic energy, the central Romanza is delightfully lyrical. In the first movement there is much dialogue between piano and orchestra and the tireless motor rhythms also show Medtner loved his Scarlatti. The Divertimento plays with themes from the previous movements in a dancing style that culminates in a riot. Medtner's music is not as gripping as Rachmaninoff, but it grows on you, and you will not tire of it as soon as of that of his fellow emigre-countryman. A concerto that deserves to be better known.
[Geoffrey Tozer on Chandos]


15. John Foulds, Dynamic Triptych for Piano and Orchestra (1929)
This is a truly magnificent concerto that for long years was completely forgotten. Foulds was popular in the 1920s for his A World Requiem in commemoration of the war dead, but was soon forgotten after his death from cholera in India in 1939. The Dynamic Triptych was only performed once (in 1933) and then lay forgotten until Howard Shelley dusted it off for his Lyrita performance in 1984. It is dramatic and experimental music, written under the influence of exotic music theories. The first movement is called "Dynamic Mode," the second "Dynamic Timbre" and the third "Dynamic Rhythm." The writing for both piano and orchestra is exuberant. The slow movement is the most romantic, Foulds inhabits a very shadowy world and the use of slithery quarter-tones is really disturbing in effect. The last movement is a sparkling dance. Jazz plays its part here, we hear cross-rhythms and changes of meter, clusters and complex chords. It is virtuoso music full of unstoppable energy which will blow the mind of anyone who hears it for the first time. Foulds may well be one of the most undervalued composers of the 20th century.
[Howard Shelley on Lyrita]


16. John Ireland, Piano Concerto in E Flat major (1930)
A lyrical concerto with jazzy dance band elements. Was long seen as the pre-eminent British piano concerto, a worthy pendant to the contemporary Prokofiev and Ravel concertos. Although it has now sunk into oblivion, the concerto was immediately successful and was often performed by British and international soloists over four decades. The concerto was written for the brilliant 19-year old pianist Helen Perkin, for whom the composer obviously harbored tender feelings (he even quotes from a string quartet she had composed as a student). Helen Perkins premiered the concerto at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert, an event which made both their names, but to Ireland's disappointment she next married an architect and moved with him to Australia. Music is not all-powerful, apparently.
[Eric Parkin on Chandos]


17. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Piano Concerto in C (1926-31)
A concerto full of drama and turbulence, like Vaughan Williams' music from the same period as the Fourth Symphony and Job. The three movements are titled Toccata, Romanza and Fuga chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca. The Toccata is characterized by two "blocks" of music, a driving piano solo set against a rising theme in the orchestra with which the concerto starts, and a more scherzo-like idea, shared between piano and orchestra. A thunderous piano cadenza forms the link to the slow movement which starts without a break, a delicate Romanza. The third movement again follows without a break and begins with a fugue that is linked to a waltz finale. In this concerto, Vaughan Williams treated the piano as a percussion instrument, as did Bartók and Hindemith during this period - the orchestral texture is at times very thick. The composer took the advice of well-meaning critics to rework his music into a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1946), adding more texture to the piano parts, but today the original version is considered as superior.
[Howard Shelley on Lyrita]

[Vaughan Williams]

18. Constance Lambert, Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1931)
This a deliciously jazzy concerto, but one which also becomes unexpectedly serious as the music advances. The nine players are flute (doubling piccolo), three clarinets, trumpet, trombone, cello, string bass and percussion, leading to contrast-rich music as in the Stravinsky and Janacek concertos. It is a starkly incisive, even abrasive work. The three movements are called Overture, Intermède and Finale (Lugubre) - and the ending is sad and silent. It has been called "a form of musical parable that investigates every phrase of language, to discard them all, little by little, so as to arrive at something which comes near to an invitation to silence. All this by a route that starts from an apparent rhythmical vital attack, progressing to the final desolate notes of the blues - subtitled "Lugubre" - through all of which, from time to time, can be recognized the echoes of jazz..." (from the sleeve notes by Silvio D'Amicone). A very original work.
[Alessandro de Curtis on ASdisc; Ian Brown on Helios]

[Lambert by Wood]

Posts about classical music include:
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part One 
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Two
  • Best Piano Concertos, Part Three