Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition.

2011 April 28
by Gregory Wang

The idea that the Russian National Music (if only in the mind of Stasov) vigorously resisted the “pedantic” German influence might be a little misleading; if no inspiration for the rhapsodic set of miniatures Pictures at an Exhibition can be found in the logic of sonata form, one can at least look to Schumann for some parallels–after all, the German’s (relatively unpopular) Papillons and Carnaval are surely similar in spirit.  How the two composers differ in execution, however, more closely falls along party lines.

Inspired by a showcase of the paintings of a friend, the Russian musical conceptions themselves exhibit a realism not by introducing rustic elements into the repertoire but by giving the topics new life and authenticity.  ”Bydlo” (the ox cart) is painful, heaving, and thoroughly effective, and one can nearly hear the taunting of children in “Tuileries.”  And the women in the marketplace always bring a smile–with these excerpts, it’s not the program of the music but the imaginative execution that is so immensely appealing.  Exactly where Schumann’s palette may seem muted, his phrases periodic, Mussorgsky is able (perhaps aided by overall disregard to much of regulatory precedent) to conceive highly varied and appropriate color.

It’s not always beautiful.  Mussorgsky isn’t always aiming for this;  the music can be vulgar and cruel.  But this is essential to his realism.

Strauss. Der Rosenkavalier, Act I

2011 April 24
by Gregory Wang

There’s a fluidity of the musical “numbers” here.  The distinct sections obviously fall between musical interludes:  the entrance of Mohammed or the morning bird-calls (their appearance, before any mention of day, is startling but cute), among others.  But within the sections, conversations displace the usual monologue of arias, and Strauss seems to be quite comfortable within the Wagnerian influence–though works like Salome are more apparent manifestations of beautiful musical run-ons, the conservative Rosenkavalier still exudes “real life,”  an organic quality inherent in the proceedings.  A heartfelt declamation of love  deserves a lyrical pause, which it receives; transitions in the orchestra then immediately invite the next dramatic happening with no pause for applause.  After all, “real life” isn’t so easily divided into numbers either.

Wagner. Parsifal, Act III.

2011 April 18
by Gregory Wang

Raised from my musical childhood with the supposition that Debussy’s mockery of the opening of Tristan und Isolde within Children’s Corner was indicative of more general feelings toward Wagner, I was incredibly surprised to find the following on Wikipedia:

“Incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong. Parsifal is one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music,”

which represents high praise from the Frenchman if the major draw of “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk”  is the laughing noises following the statement of the Tristan’s ”suffering” motive.  But even if Tristan wasn’t taken seriously–hard to imagine–Parsifal tugs at everything that makes Romantics and Rationalists alike weep and shake their heads; the piece resists words, resists reason.

The “endless melody” might be hardly long enough.

Verdi: Don Carlos, Act IV.

2011 April 12
by Gregory Wang

Very effective: orchestral color.  The ensemble swells in mighty declarations of faith, brassy and bold, retreating when necessary into pious chorale texture.  And the rumbling entrance of Inquisitor hardly could have been more ominous.

Also very effective: form.  The short overture dovetails into the first number, and though Wagner would have more to accomplish in matters of unity–after all, here there are still numbers themselves–the overture almost begins again during the course of the singing.  It’s a nice effect, pointing to a fluidity of formal sections.  Perhaps the relatively clunky Rossinian forms might not have fully embraced the fantastic shifts of mood appropriate to the text.

Like in Wagner, all of this points toward text and music’s meshing to a greater extent than in earlier works.

Schumann and Mendelssohn. The other Schumann and Mendelssohn.

2011 March 20
by Gregory Wang

Preliminary question.  Why isn’t this music performed more often?

The opening phrases of the Clara Schumann’s first Romance from op. 22 are heartrendingly beautiful, soaring breaths.  The harmonic, coloristic changes are superb.  It doesn’t persist throughout the rest of the pieces, but perhaps the expectations have been set too high, or we are simply overloaded with musical “love.”  Whatever the reason, I struggle to find examples as expansive or breathtaking in the work of her husband.  The latter’s op. 28 Romances–even the one if F-sharp–are made rather pedestrian by this lofty standard.

Surely this talent was some factor in her virtual abandonment of composition following her husband’s death;  could it have been a loyal unwillingness to eclipse his legacy?  At any rate, her grasp of form is a little less original than her melody, but the same criticism can be made quite easily of Schumann the husband.  The lines can be a little square, but surely the other Schumann (Robert) shares this quality as well.  In fact, I find myself going through a checklist of compositional and affective features, comparing the two works, and the Clara Schumann hold up very well.  Remarkably well.

I really don’t know why this isn’t performed more often.  It looks to be commonly played enough, but I wouldn’t mind hearing it again and again.

I had to look up which of the Mendelssohn violin concerto or Fanny Mendelssohn piano trio came first, since they sound so similar.  In fact, the main themes are nearly identical, which lessens my respect for the later work (the trio) in the slightest.  However, the interval of the major seventh is a beautiful leap, exploited here to great effect, and the turbulence of the opening bravura passage is sufficiently stormy.  And there’s some gorgeous texture here.

So why isn’t it performed more often?

Rossini, La Cenerentola.

2011 March 6
by Gregory Wang

As to exactly how much of the brilliant, quirky effects in Rossini’s operas were strictly intentional on the part of the much-maligned composer is open to debate.  Nonetheless, though perhaps written entirely for pyrotechnical purposes,  the bravura runs by Cenerentola and Prince Ramiro seem wonderfully, absolutely, giddy.  Tumbling head over heels, the two meet and trade pick-up lines, Italian-style, with an electric nervousness; in the process, they summon a storm of scales and trills calculated to amaze and enthrall.  But there’s something more, a charm from the passage’s audible similarity to the twitching and fidgeting commonly encountered in these situations;  more than virtuosic, it was lifelike.

songs without words.

2011 February 27
by Gregory Wang

In Schubert there’s not just an emphasis on register and texture absent in the earlier Viennese masters; often register and texture are the only discernible differences between sections.  The music might fade into a tentative piano solo, but for Mr. Schubert, no good melody should be left unrepeated once or twice–the violins come in, stealing the lofty lines from the pianist.  Evidently, even the song-smith’s instrumental compositions must become songs without words as well.

Fragmentation, so necessary in Beethoven, is here almost strictly relegated to the transitory or developmental.  But even with it, the developments seem almost obligatory, as if etiquette demanded that Schubert give us a transition between A and B, or a formal development with our exposition and recapitulation.   Inevitably these bars come off as padding between sweet melody and delightful romp, or those two elements in the reverse.  It’s as if the most redeeming element of the transitions are their ability to “clean our palates,” taking us to a new key area.  All the while, they make another opportunity for Schubert to transport the listener into a world of beautifully spun, silky song.

Perhaps because of this, the music is so exquisite and fully Romantic.  In fact, the inherited Classical structures might only be vehicles for the melody, which seems sweeter with each repetition, more intoxicating than the last hearing.  By the final variation of the fourth movement of the Trout quintet, the theme  is presented in exactly the same context as the song of the same name, and everything feels just about right, as if all has led to this single moment.   It’s not unlike the variations in the late Beethoven piano sonatas, where the final, simple statement of the theme is so transcendent.  Here, though, there’s less of the celestial and more plain song.  And listening to the Schubert, it’s perfect nonetheless.

Beethoven and the Morose Mozart.

2011 February 20
by Gregory Wang

To the best of my knowledge (in this case, the gut-feeling-index), no one does dying-music like Mozart.  Bach is  a possible exception.  But Mozart–that guy could really scribble out a few tear-jerkers.  The first half of the Requiem?  Masterful.   The death of the Commodore in Don Giovanni?  Some sublime stuff.  Predictably, it seems that Beethoven took more notice of the earlier master than most would think, since halfway into the Credo of the great Missa Solemnis finds Jesus in the hands of Pilate and the listener at the mercy of rolling strings that sound a little more than similar to the death of the Commodore.   The tonicization of iv by a diminished triad then shift to a half-diminished ii chord is textbook Mozart.  Plus, it’s in the same key as the Lacrimosa.

But where Beethoven really shows off is a daring passage centered around the word passus. It’s one of many bits that presumably represent great fun on the part of the composer, containing between them exceptional quantities of liberally applied text paint. In this case the V-i-V-i progression is outlined by a duet of sorts between the rising harmonic lines of the bass and 1st violin, and this is ornamented on V by the flat third and a chromatic encirclement of the root.  The technical description doesn’t sound like much, but in practice, the effect is enormous, gradually increased suffering.  It’s an absolutely brilliant maneuver, rating pretty high on the gut-feeling-index.  Some sublime stuff.