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Music For The Day

The spirit of New York City, in three movements

A complete performance of Concerto in F for piano by George Gershwin, performed here by Marc-André Hamelin with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.

This is one of those more classical/less jazzy performances of the work, which I actually quite like – I went so far as purchasing the score and trying to get to grips with the piano part back in my Cambridge days, when I had regular access to a Steinway model B and D.

While the Tin Pan Alley heritage of the work is important, one can sometimes make it swing too much, I think, and many modern performances seek to emphasise the jazz aspect over the work’s classical structure and elements. Such performances overlook the fact that Gershwin wrote the concerto in part to burnish his credentials as a “serious” composer rather than a mere songwriter, going so far as to take lessons in orchestration rather than relying on Ferde Grofé to translate from a two-piano version (as he did for Rhapsody in Blue).

As Ileen Zovluck writes in describing the work:

The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.

The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.

The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.

My favourite studio recording of this work remains the André Previn / LSO recording featuring then-principal trumpet Howard Snell in the second movement – again, a performance that I would consider more toward the classical end of the spectrum, despite Previn’s proficiency in jazz. The LSO brass were on their usual top form throughout this excellent recording, though some of the percussion is unfortunately drowned out at times.

For a more jazz-leaning performance, the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concert this year, with Aaron Diehl at the piano and live-streamed on Facebook, was an excellent and equally enjoyable example.

 

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Music For The Day

This Remembrance Sunday, take some time to switch off from “broadcast” mode and enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection

The second movement (Andante) of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, Op. 14, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff.

As Michael Steinberg summarises in programme notes for the San Francisco Symphony:

The Andante begins with another inspired melody, this one given to the oboe. With touching tact, Barber lets the oboist bask in that glory, for the violin enters and occupies itself with quite different, more rhapsodic material; only at the recapitulation does the violin take the oboe theme, singing it molto espressivo low on the G-string. The coda, one of Barber’s most beautiful pages, is one of the products of the revision.

Listen to the whole piece here.

Now seems to be a particularly good time to enjoy the music of a quintessentially American composer. What were Samuel Barbers’ own personal political views? Would he be a Clintonite or a Trumpist if he were still alive and lived through the 2016 presidential election campaign? Would he believe that we are Stronger Together, or want to Make America Great Again? Would we consider Barber acceptably progressive or deeply intolerant by today’s standards?

Who cares? Today we know Barber as an American composer, not as a progressive or a conservative. Some things – like art, at its best – transcend our fierce little contemporary political debates. A point well worth keeping in mind on a day in which we recall that we are very much part of history, but blessed to be burdened with the the problems of 2016 rather than those of 1916 or 1936.

 

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Music For The Day

Concerto for keyboard and orchestra no. 7, by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here, the second movement is performed by Glenn Gould with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann.

Full performance here.

 

Glenn Gould

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Music For The Day

Definitely not Gilbert & Sullivan

“The Lost Chord”, a song by Sir Arthur Sullivan, setting to music a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. In this 1939 recording, the song is performed by British tenor Webster Booth.

The song was immediately popular on its publication in 1877, and was memorably performed by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso at a benefit concert for the families of the victims of the Titanic sinking at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 29 April 1912.

The song is also performed movingly in the Mike Leigh film “Topsy Turvy”, focusing on the famous and often fraught partnership between Arthur Sullivan and his librettist WS Gilbert.

Almost achingly Victorian in style, The Lost Chord has more than a shade of morbidity to it, together with that 19th century greater ease and familiarity with death and loss, which 140 years of medical advances have incrementally, thankfully, deprived us.

 

The Lost Chord

Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;
I knew not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fever’d spirit with a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,
It seem’d the harmonious echo from our discordant life.

It link’d all perplexèd meanings into one perfect peace
And trembled away into silence as if it were loth to cease;
I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ and enter’d into mine.

It may be that Death’s bright angel will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen!

 

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Image: Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

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Music For The Day

Ethereal, desolate, beautiful choral music by Vaughan Williams

From the hushed and mystical opening to the blazing fanfares and choruses which follow, the rarely heard oratorio Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of that composer’s finest compositions and a marvellous addition to the English choral music tradition.

I had the privilege to be at a performance of this work last summer as part of the BBC Proms 2015 season (a much better season, incidentally, than this year’s truly awful, themeless programming – barely one concert worth attending) conducted by the superb Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir.

Though it lacks the splashy, memorable tunefulness of, say, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (which also focuses on the fall of Babylon), Sancta Civitas is no less dramatic, with blazing brass and quickly moving strings as the chorus intones “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns” – and “many crowns” crisply emphasised by percussion, adding suitably apocalyptic weight to these extracts from the Book of Revelation.

The offstage boys chorus, trumpet and tenor solo are also used to great effect – acoustically, this worked particularly well in the Proms setting of the Royal Albert Hall – and the piece closes in the same foreboding murmur in which it begins.

As Michael Steinberg puts it in “Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide”, describing the culmination of the piece:

And now comes the miracle in this great work, a new voice, a solo tenor, saved for this moment, and singing just sixteen words: “Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star. Surely I come quickly.” Barely above the threshold of audibility the choir, ppp and parlando, responds: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord.” And with last recollections of the opening music, the vision of Sancta Civitas fades beyond our hearing.

Sancta Civitas is performed all too rarely, which is a great shame. The score possesses a rare, brooding, desolate beauty – particularly understandable, perhaps, given that it was composed in 1923-5 and had its premiere during the 1926 General Strike, so soon after the guns of the First World War fell silent.

Religiously speaking, this is an inescapably austere vision of the Holy City. No clouds and rainbows and reunions with long-deceased pets here; this is a vision of the Holy presence of God which strikes awe and no small amount of fear in the heart. Part of me responds positively to this – often the Christian faith today seems to be sanitised or presented in U-rated form, be it deliberately childish-sounding worship songs or watered down teaching of core doctrine. Sancta Civitas evokes something much more traditional and even severe, which in some ways is no bad thing.

Regardless: here is quintessentially Modern English choral music at its very best – but you probably have to be in the right mood.

 

Sancta Civitas - Vaughan Williams - BBC Proms

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