Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Truly Great Minor Composer

OK—he’s one of those guys who occupy a real niche. Though he was born just a year after Bach, and though he got around a lot more than Bach, and though he was arguably much more famous than Bach (especially as a composer), Nicola Porpora is so unknown that the computer—or the program Word—has red-squiggled him. But even Word knows Johann Sebastian Bach.

And if you know Porpora, it’s probably because of one aria, from the movie Farinelli. And the aria? Alto Giove—and every time I hear it, I fall in love with all over again. It’s a typical aria meant to showcase the singer—in this case the castrato’s—ability to sing long, sustained melodic lines. Listen to the amazing counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky start the opening note so softly he’s barely discernable, swell it gradually, and then reduce to its opening softness. One note like could bring down the house. Oh, and establish you as a very, very well off man after a distinguished career. And at the age of 35, Jaroussky has scaled heights every bit as dazzling as did Farinelli and Caffarelli, his counterparts 300 years ago.

And who was Porpora? He was born in Naples in 1686, and achieved fame for two things—as a composer and as a voice teacher. In fact, Porpora taught the greatest voices of his age—besides Farinelli and Caffarelli, mentioned above, there was also Salimbeni—and he also wrote arias that were uniquely tailored for the individual singer. But let another extraordinary singer, Cecilia Bartoli, speak:

Besides writing stupendously difficult but exciting music, Porpora spent three months teaching composition to his most distinguished student: Joseph Haydn. And Haydn’s account of it is revealing: “there was no lack of asino, coglione, birbante (ass / cullion / rascal) and pokes in the ribs, but I put up with it all, for I profited greatly from Porpora in singing, in composition, and in the Italian language.”

Porpora, in fact, became so famous that he was hired to establish a rival opera house in London. And his rival? Georg Frederich Handel. It has to be said—Handel walked away from the battle unscarred, whereas Porpora went into bankruptcy. Still, if you’re going to lose, you could do worse than lose to Handel.

Porpora then fled to Dresden, where he locked horns with the preeminent German composer Johann Adolph Hasse. After that, it was Vienna, and finally a return home to Naples.

And then he was old, and his music? No longer in fashion—it was too florid, too ornate. By 1760, the age of classicism had started—it was to be the world of Mozart and Haydn, not a 74 year old man. Porpora’s last opera, Camilla, was a flop, and when Porpora died in 1768, he was penniless. And his famous students, Farinelli and Caffarelli? Living a very nice life indeed in retirement. A subscription concert had to be organized to bury Porpora.

Throughout his life, he had worked hard. He left behind, Wikipedia reports, four dozen operas, a mass, a vespers, and violin and cello sonatas. Oh, and this gem—the cello concerto in G Major


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Three Great Romantic Piano Quintets

Wow—who knew?

Most piano quintets are hastily thrown together affairs; either a string quartet will scrounge up a pianist, or a piano trio will look for an extra violinist and violist. They’ll play for a couple of rehearsals, and then do the concert. Then it’s kiss / kiss and goodbye.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, it takes a surprisingly long time to take five individuals and make one unified group. And even with extraordinary musicians, there are matters of style that have to be worked out over the years. My staccato, for example, may be shorter than yours. (Staccato are short, sharp notes.) My vibrato is faster than yours—should I slow it down, or should you speed yours up? Even tuning—a colleague once told me that my thirds are quite high: not high enough to be out of tune, but still higher than hers. So I adjusted.

That’s the technical stuff, and it’s by no means little. But rather like the soup that keeps getting better after days of heating and reheating, something almost mystical happens. It’s no longer onions sitting next to tomatoes next to potatoes; it’s no longer a violinist playing with a cellist and a pianist.

The problem? Well, there aren’t that many pieces of music for piano quintets out there—certainly nothing like the piano trios or the string quartets. Schubert has the famous Trout Quintet—but that has a double bass instead of the second violin. Schumann has a wonderful piano quintet, which essentially established the pattern. Brahms follows suit, as does Cesar Frank, Franck, Dvorak and Shostakovich.

Who’s missing? Well, there’s Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—pretty big names.

So the world is filled with guys who play in piano trios or string quartets. But until today, I was unaware that there was a full time piano quartet out there. And boy, what an amazing ensemble they make! They started in 1999, and the group—called Ensemble Syntonia—is made up of five excellent French musicians. Here’s a riveting performance of the Cesar Franck piano quintet, which a group of French critics voted “definitive” in a blind listening in 2010. Take a listen:   

I apologize, by the way, for the annoying background hum, which is as inexplicable to me as the recording, which couldn’t possibly have taken place outside. Why? Because the resonance—the slight echo in the sound—is too great for anything played outside. You need walls and an enclosed space to get that sound. But what do I know?

At any rate, this is classic Franck, who wrote a lot of music, but who is only remembered for three or four pieces, of which this is one. Franck had a difficult life, in parts—a childhood prodigy, he had an overbearing father who shopped him around Paris, eventually turning off the musical public. So they retreated back to Liege, where Franck fell in love with a girl of whom Papa didn’t approve. Then Franck gave the middle finger to his father and walked out. They reconciled enough to attend the wedding.

After that, Franck served as organist at Sainte-Clotilde, and was later appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory. So he wrote a lot of organ music, a lot of religious music, and operas and oratorios. With the exception of the organ pieces, which are still played, and the Panis Angelicus, which is still sung, not much of this music ever gets heard.

Nor was it all particularly good. And then, somewhere in the late 1870’s until his death in 1890, he got an incredible creative surge. And that’s when this work comes from—1877-1879.

And what a tempestuous work it is. Legend has it that Franck had fallen in love with one of his students—and that may be what lies under it. Interestingly, Madame Franck had a particular antipathy to the piece, and said so publically. Oh—and another funny story: the piece was premiered with Camille Saint-Saens, the noted French composer, at the piano. And apparently, Saint-Saens so disliked the piece that he played it, walked off the stage and never acknowledged the wild applause or the offer of the manuscript (a serious economic mistake).

Well, the disc which has the Franck Quintet pairs it with the father of them all: The Schumann Piano Quintet. And this is from what has been called “Schumann’s chamber music year;” 1842, during which he produced this work, a Piano Quartet, and three string quartets.

Liszt didn’t like it, feeling that it was too conservative, but nobody else joins him in this opinion, at least today. It’s a wonderful, fiery work, which Schumann’s wife Clara played often throughout her career. And yes, apparently Robert Schumann, probably peeved by his wife’s prominence versus his own somewhat lesser star, stated that the piece could only be played by a man.

Well, this performance does have a man on the ivory, and it’s an excellent, tempestuous rendition. But I can tell you that, having a version of the same work with Martha Argerich, women can definitely play the piece.

Here it is:      

Lastly, to finish up, here’s another Romantic Piano Quintet, by Antonin Dvorak. Written in 1887, it’s trademark Dvorak—filled with Czech melodies and musical forms (the second movement is a dumka: a form that slow movement with a manic fast section).

Sadly, the Ensemble Syntonia have not posted this on YouTube. So here, standing ably in, is Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet.  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Composer Who Tangled with an Umbrella Stand

He’s a composer who doesn’t have listeners, but rather fans. As in fanatics…

Proof, you ask?

“Alkan’s piano trio is probably the greatest ever written,” wrote one customer reviewing a CD.

Well, I’m listening to the work as I write this, and yes, it’s impressive. It’s inventive and fresh—but is it better than the Archduke of Beethoven, the opus 8 of Brahms (don’t let the low opus number throw you—it’s a mature work)? There are a lot of great piano trios out there.

And Alkan writes both wonderfully lyrically for the strings and fiendishly virtuosically for the piano. In fact, that may be part of why Alkan is so little known—most pianists fear that he’s a composer only for the most technically gifted. And really, if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning a truly fearsome piece, wouldn’t you choose the Liszt B Minor, and not some devilish piece by an unknown?

(Speaking of Liszt, he once remarked to a Danish composer that Alkan possessed the greatest technique he—Liszt—had ever known….)

At any rate, the piano trio is a knockout—check it out below.

But Alkan composed a lot of pieces that are haunting—and not at all difficult. Here’s one—Le Temps qui n’est plus—that even an average pianist could easily play….

Then there’s a wonderful nocturne that rivals anything that Chopin produced… 

Alkan had an interesting life. He was born into a Jewish family--his grandfather was a printer who printed the Talmud--and remained a practicing Jew all his life. But more than that, for a period of time, he retreated from society and translated into French from the original languages the Old and New Testament.

And why did he retreat? He had, after all, been a child prodigy, he enjoyed friendships with Berlioz, Liszt, and especially Chopin, who gave him a manuscript to complete on piano technique. That was the first blow; the second was not being appointed head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory. It went to a man with better connections, and a gentile as well. And so from 1848 to 1872, Alkan essentially withdrew from society, and from the concert stage.

And then--just as mysteriously--he reappeared for the last fifteen years of his life. And his death? The legend is that a tall bookcase crushed him, as he endeavored to replace a volume on an upper shelf. The reality appears to be that he may have had a heart attack, reached out for support to a very tall umbrella stand / foyer mirror, which fell and toppled onto him.

At any rate, he languished as a composer, and became a very much niche interest. You knew him and loved him or you didn't. Nothing in between.

Well, except for me. Here isthe first movement of Alkan's Cello Sonata--you decide....