Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and Songs

May 9th, 2011 § 0

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces were a cute set of pieces to listen to. They were all quite short and charming, with their program clearly written out in the title of each piece. Some of the titles reminded me Schumann’s Kinderszenen. However, considering the number of pieces there were, it is hard to remember what I felt about each piece–although the Arietta, despite repeating a certain phrase multiple times, always slightly surprised me with its unexpected chromaticism. I liked the quaintness and the character of each little movement and how none of them were too long–just long enough to satisfy one’s ear and keep one interested in continuing to listen.

That being said, I miss the grittiness that Grieg is capable of–as in his string quartet, which has some of the most beautiful chord progressions I have ever had the fortune to hear–and the brevity sometimes made me think that they were more sketch-like rather than finished pieces, though in some cases that could be looked as favorable for its almost improvisational nature that keeps a listener intrigued. Still, it’s hard to concentrate after more than about 30 minutes.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

May 2nd, 2011 § 0

It’s tragic that one of the very few non-operatic pieces on the blog list is one that I have grown to dislike very strongly. That is not to say that it is not a great, grandiose piece; it is personal experience that has ruined it for me. My first experience with it was in middle school, where our orchestra played  a thoroughly castrated arrangement of the piece. Since then I have “performed” it four or five more times, with each occasion being progressively more true to its whole, original form. As it is, I don’t think I’ve actually played an unabridged version of the piece.

There is something that sets this piece apart from other Russian works I have come across by composers for whom I feel a much stronger affinity–e.g. Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, even Borodin and Prokofiev (I realize that some of these composers don’t really belong on this list with the setting in mind). There was something distinctly foreign about it from my Western point of view–something that is echoed in Prokofief (the opening of the 2nd Violin Concerto and Pictures’ Promenade must have come from the same source, or perhaps Prokofief was quoting the older composer) but is not carried out to the extent that Mussorgsky did–that can be assumed is strongly Russian. This is taken further by his utilization of Russian nationalism (the Great Gate of Kiev, which was, alas, never built) and Baba Yaga, an ever-occurring figure in Russian folklore.

In Pictures Mussorgsky accomplished what he had striven for: writing quintessentially Russian programmatic music.

Strauss’ Rosenkavalier

April 25th, 2011 § 0

This piece was by a wide margin my least favorite on the list so far. For me it was too thick–the “texture” practically something of itself, competing with rather than supporting the singers, although it wasn’t as murky as a more serious opera would have been. The music itself was too opera-like for me to enjoy it–dodging the musical point for the sake of the words and the explicitly stated (or rather, sung) story. It seemed to me like that one had taken the singers’ side of opera and added a separate symphonic piece to it–technically, the piece could still stand without the singers, though I would think it would become tiresome quite quickly because it takes so long to get to a point. As for the story itself, I was rather indifferent. I did, however, appreciate the talents of Barbara Bonney and Anne Sophie von Otter. Their singing was very clear and to the point.

Wagner’s Parsifal, Act III

April 18th, 2011 § 0

I am not sure whether I disliked this because of the singers or the music itself, but I suspect it might be more the latter than the former. I thought it sounded dreary and repetitive; it certainly did not help that the singer’s vibrato made it impossible for me to distinguish what note he was singing. The whole first half took quite an effort to listen through; I found myself not only being unable to focus on the music, but to want to turn it off altogether. I could hardly differentiate between each aria–or whatever they are–and it was simply overall rather painful to listen to. To me it seemed that he used the orchestra the same way the entire time, with the only respite being when the singer(s) stepped back, and even then I could hardly call it a respite for I did not enjoy listening to that, either. The Prelude was nice for the first minute and a half or so, but the rest of it seemed to me like repetition of that first opening minute–and dear lord, the upper strings sounded horrendous in a certain descending passage…at that point I was merely hoping that it was the orchestra and not the music itself.

I think it may be due to my untrained ear, but there were several sections that reminded me of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, which I enjoyed far more than this opera’s third act, perhaps due to the addressed subject matter and story.

There was one thing I liked about Parsifal: it was very easy to find, unlike the other opera listening assignments, which I had to sift through several places, often with each installment sung by different people and different orchestras.

Verdi’s Don Carlos, Act IV

April 11th, 2011 § 0

It is interesting how Act IV unfolds: it begins with bold and ominous repetitions of two notes that somehow make death come to mind almost immediately–perhaps it is the sharp tang of the horns that sours what would otherwise be a full, round sound. It is then followed by a beautiful and mournful cadenza-like cello solo that is then echoed by the other cellos and strings. I found it very interesting that any instrument would have such an extensive solo, especially from a string instrument; I could only be more surprised if it were a viola or bass solo. I actually felt compelled to listen to it more than once.

The Prelude segues seamlessly into the aria, as if it had only been that a voice had been added to the Prelude. The ominous two-note repetition is given to the oboe–it is reminiscent of a bird. The cello weaves in occasionally to remind us of its presence in the Prelude. There were sections of that aria that reminded me of the fifth movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection.”

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the beginning of Act IV, and that did not end with “Ella giammai m’amo,” though every once in a while I did find myself reverting to my usual reluctance to listen to opera, fighting the urge to either skip ahead or stop listening altogether. There did not seem to be much difference from other operas I have listened to, although the presence of the orchestra was larger and less “hurdy-gurdy” or at the mere whim of the singers; in previous operas it seemed that the singer could have gotten away with whatever they wished, taking as much time as they wanted, and if the orchestra were left behind, the singer would hold no culpability. There seemed to be more tempo-related and rhythmic structure. Of course, that might have been an illusion and simply a great performance that I listened to.

There was a section of the quartet “Ah, sii maledetto, sospetto fatale” that was gorgeous, with the flute and soprano juxtaposed beautifully. The chromaticism also stood out to me.

I liked the singers much more than I usually would; I think this might have something to do with how their vibrato did not destroy their intonation. More than once I have listened to someone sing and not been able to tell if a passage was just bobbing up and down, wavering almost drunkenly so much that it was impossible to tell what note they were singing. I greatly appreciated their integrity.

As a final note, I found it rather interesting that in his time, Don Carlos was not much of a success, seen as a vital step in his maturation, the opera between Aida and La forza del destino, simply because by comparison, it is one of the most bearable operas I have heard.

Piano Trio in D Minor, op.11 AND Three Romances for Piano and Violin, op.22, no.2

March 21st, 2011 § 0

The first piece I listened to–Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, opus 11–was a very pretty piece. Each part had its solos, and the second movement in particular was pleasing to listen to.

The performance I listened to was recorded by the Atlantis Trio, who utilized a fortepiano, the pianoforte’s predecessor. The violin sounded different as well, though for what reason I cannot tell. I personally did not like the lack of delicacy in the tone and the metallic edge to the sound, along with the inexpressive vibrato. The sound of the open strings led me to believe that a big part of the reason the sound did not appeal to me was the instrument itself–perhaps it was historical also. The inherent sound quality of the cello was similar to the violin’s, but the deeper timbre of the cello made it far more bearable.

The 3 Romances for Piano and Violin were (was?) charming and an easy listen, perhaps in part to their short duration. However, I found that each Romance had a motif or phrase that was too repetitive to be fully enjoyable. The first of the three, though it had a bit of an introduction, sounded a little abrupt, breaking into depth without enough preface. The second did not seem so sudden. It spun, hardly stopping or pausing, with a very repetitive four-note motif that came one after another throughout the whole movement. The ending ended in a playful Picardy third slightly-strummed pizzicato, with the piano short to match. The third was melodic and singing in the violin, while the piano rolled, stopping only to pick up the melody when the violin took on pizzicato, taking the backseat after having dominated the melody for most of the piece; immediately thereafter the piano matched the violin before returning to the first section, whereupon the piano began rolling again.

Though I am not sure if this sound was characteristic of the time, I felt that there was something Brahms-ian about this composition–maybe it was the lyricism or the tradeoff between voices. It was certainly very pretty.

Rossini’s Cenerentola

March 7th, 2011 § 0

Cenerentola was remarkably easy to listen to. I thought the voicing was interesting, especially how Angelina was only a contralto/mezzo-soprano while her sisters were a soprano and mezzo-soprano. Perhaps it is the knowledge of the story and how popular the story is that makes it so easy to understand.

The overture is playful and easy to tell what it is trying to portray. The most effective vehicle in portraying the comic mood is the rhythm and repetition; there are many three-note sequences throughout. The dialogue between the instruments is lighthearted. It further confirms the humorous nature of the opera itself.

As I know very little about singing and the devices used by singers, there is not too much I can say about that. However, I could hear in the orchestra the same type of comical repetition as in the overture, and sometimes this was taken by the voices, too. There were many jokes within the voices (blubbering, going “jibaji jibaji,” some of the rhythms, and other vocal tricks I do not know what they’re called).

It is easy to see why it is so popular and have been for a long time. It is a very accessible opera even now, though much of this could easily be attributed to Disney. The light comedy that this opera employs makes it incredibly easy to understand. The characters have very distinct voices and personalities assigned to them. Even I, who don’t like classical vocal music that much, could sit down and enjoy this.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

February 16th, 2011 § 0

As someone who is not terribly familiar with–and therefore not terribly fond of–Beethoven or of vocal music, I can’t say I was moved by Missa Solemnis at all. My dislike of this piece is not necessarily specific to the piece itself; first, I generally do not like Beethoven’s music outside his piano compositions, although I can attribute this to my unfamiliarity with his music, especially in my repertoire. Second, I do not like the sound of human voices en masse unless each voice is singing a distinct part and the voices number less than ten. These pre-established prejudices makes it difficult for me to say more than “I didn’t like it” regarding the music itself.

What I found interesting was that his religious beliefs have been disputed. How could Beethoven written the Missa, then called it his favorite composition, without Catholic conviction? He was born into a Catholic family and died as an assumed member of the Catholic church, even given a Requiem Mass. Yet the music itself is considered unorthodox and Beethoven’s God, the deity that is so present in his works, is a personal one, not necessarily the Catholic one his family had raised him by.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was to be written for one of Beethoven’s greatest patrons, Archduke Rudolph, who was to be appointed Archbishop in 1820. However, the Mass was completed in 1823, indicating that the Mass was driven by more than a simple dedication to and celebration of the Emperor’s brother’s rise to Archbishop-dom. Though a Mass–and one that was painstakingly true to the original text in comparison to other composers’ takes–Beethoven did not limit its performance to the Church, and for one concert even referred to three movements of the Mass as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.”

The piece is undoubtedly religious, but it is more a medium filled with his own convictions, as a water jug could be a vessel for wine (pardon the horrible simile). Perhaps it is yet another extension of his individuality–and perhaps that possibility is an extension of the Beethoven myth.