Sunday, November 20, 2016

16 Perfect "Chosen" Bars for Sunday

Note: This article contains a music track auto-generated by YouTube which might not be playable outside the USA.  There are several other performances available there, though.

I'll never stop singing the praises of Herbert Howells (1892-1983), one of the greatest British composers of all time in my humble opinion.  Widely known for his choral music, Howells also excelled in instrumental music of all shapes and sizes, including his brass band classic Pageantry and his luscious Rhapsodic Quintet.  Far lower on the fame rung are his piano works, few of which were published in his lifetime, perhaps due to the fact that he never had a really big work (no sonatas like Bax or Tippett) except for large sets, chiefly his brilliant Elizabethan throwback sets Lambert's Clavichord and Howells's Clavichord.  In the late '90's Thames Publishing, a sheet music outfit I've never heard of before, published a two-volume collection of his shorter piano works with dreadfully dull green covers, and for the benefit of everybody who likes good things the most wonderful Margaret Fingerhut recorded a pile of those works along with a couple previously published: selections from Lambert's Clavichord and one of his last works, a Sonatina written for a piano competition.  I'll get to more Howells later (especially the Two Folk Dances recorded on that same album), but for now I'd like to look at a piece which should have long ago become a standard encore piece, not just for piano concerts but for pretty much any concert - and considering how beautiful the piece is I'd bet even big-time composers would work for free just to get the chance to arrange it.

The introduction to the Thames edition sums it up quite nicely:

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That's quite a bit of backstory for such a short piece, a mere 16 bars, but its concentrated artistry and resounding beauty justify its lengthy, personal germination.  Howells was very much a Pastoralist, my label for the English style of Impressionism that dominated the first half of the 20th century on the fair isles, and here we have one of his most soulful tunes, obviously influenced by his native folk music but crafted for maximum harmonic depth.  It was originally published for violin and piano as part of a set but to be honest I think a violin would only rupture the hymn-like perfection of the part-writing.  There aren't many pieces I would call "perfect", as perfection requires a great deal of restraint to achieve consistency and a lack of unnecessary elements.  Heck, one of my favorite pieces of music is Stravinsky's Petrushka, a ballet crammed with so many ideas it seems like he thought he'd never write again, so while it's far from a rigorously "perfect" piece it's still amazing.  The 'Chosen' Tune is perfect, perfect in its brevity, its craftsmanship and its timeless resonance.  It's so perfect that talking about it any longer is useless, so let's hear Ms. Fingerhut and have a warming Sunday evening in these cold days.


Monday, November 7, 2016

An Old Leaf on an Ancient Russia

Thanks for Hayk Melikyan for supplying the score for this article!

With a new job still taking time away from my productiveness and a lot of performing at the beginning of the month my big Nikolay Tcherepnin article is still in the works, but thankfully a leaf has fallen into my lap that begs for articlizing.  This descent into blog eligibility came about oddly compared to much of the music I cover here in that I heard the piece before seeing the score.  Shocking, I know!  But this is the way it'd probably be without a little help from my friends, as no amount of internetty searching could give me any solid info on this:

If you heard the Tcherepnin works from the Baba Yaga article and the article of his 6 Horn Quartets this should come as unexpectedly as a voice from beyond the grave.  This "Old Russian Song" is a rare piece for piano right hand alone, a genre that hasn't gotten much attention as many pieces already feel like they're for the right hand alone (...Chopin...).  It took me ages to find the score for this piece, as eventually I had to resort to contacting the pianist, Hayk Melikyan, through his official Facebook page - eventually his manager sent me a scan and I can't stop thanking them for their help as otherwise I probably would have never found this piece.

As far as I can tell this piece has only been published in a mid-1980's Soviet collection edited by Nikolay Kopchevsky (...who?...) and I still don't know if it's part of a larger set.  It's a minor revelation in what can be done with a single hand, putting all its chips on pacing, right-hand dexterity and pedalled atmosphere and winning big.  Most composers don't have the guts to write music this sparse and precious, always going for Bigger rather than Better, and I've long admired these kinds of pieces, such as when Persichetti proved that his simplest song could also be one of his most powerful.  This is definitely a piece from late in Tcherepnin's career, during a period of wistful experimentation that included his enchantingly oblique Sentimental Pieces (another Forgotten Leaves candidate) - the dramatic arc is flat and repetitive, forward motion is nil and the harmonies are insinuated through Syrinx-esque chromatic trailing.  And, man, how many people I'd kill to have thought of that final denoument.  Hayk Melikyan's performance is arresting in its sensitivity and amplification of Tcherepnin's subtleties and little brilliances, making this a heck of an interlude on your next mixtape, and maybe my next recital.  Surprisingly great work all around, and hopefully you won't have to wait too much longer for the Big Tcherepnin Show...


Friday, October 14, 2016

Four Horns in Five Tcherepnin Leaves

A featured composer this month on these blogs is Nikolay Tcherepnin, the first in line in the mighty Tcherepnin compositional dynasty, carried forth by his more famous son Alexander Tcherepnin (author of that dang Bagatelle) and his lesser-known son Ivan Tcherepnin (a guy we might be getting to in a future article).  He closed out my Baba Yaga article a bit ago and you'll be seeing the Big Show article in the coming days but here's a skinny version: Nikolay Tcherepnin (1873-1945) was one of the best students of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and inherited his mentor's deftness for orchestration and advanced harmonies and taste for the fantastic, writing for the Ballet Russes with great success and generally kicking ass and taking names.  That Big Show article is going to go over a LOT of music and discuss his place in both Russian and French musical history, so before we get navel-deep in his oeuvre let's dip a toe first with a peek at his excellent contribution to an unfortunately neglected instrumental grouping.

French horns have a reputation for being the most difficult instrument in the standard orchestra to play next to the bassoon, but it makes up for its technical beastness with a warm, pleasant tone, graceful technique and a wide note range.  Because of this horn ensembles have a special appeal and surprising effectiveness, and the most common of these is the horn quartet.  One nice thing about these groups is that you can just use the same instruments and get full coverage from soprano to bass, so quartets are both attractive and economical, allowing players to switch parts easily.  The most famous piece for horn quartet is probably the 1952 Sonata by Paul Hindemith, a work that stuck in the mind of Michael Tippett when he wrote his own horn quartet in 1957, also a Sonata.  Other modern composers to tackle the genre include Jean Françaix, Carlos Chavez, Christian Wolff and Leslie Bassett, a richly diverse bunch if I ever saw one, as well as a heap of lesser-known composers whose contributions to the oeuvre could be worth a spin.  As for the last (*COUGH* ONE BEFORE LAST GOOD SIR *COUGH*) century the coverage is spottier and mostly relegated to third banana names.  Tchaikovsky wrote a short Adagio when still in school and scored it for horn quartet, though I can't tell if he meant it to actually be played with four horns or he was just sick of writing string quartets; a Notturno by Rimsky-Korsakov gets played frequently but I couldn't find the score; and some other works pop up which seem like they're not worth our time.  However, our good friend Nikolay took a crack at it in 1910 and came up with six elegant miniatures, published as his op. 35 and freely available on IMSLP.  Not only are they some of the most charming and assured brass ensemble works of la Belle Epoque but five of the six are leaf-sized, making them an easy fit for this October's slate of articles.

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Things begin preciously with a "Nocturne" in D-flat, the best nocturne key in my humble opinion, and eschews the pianistic nocturne signature of bass arpeggios with a more manageable contrapuntal tack.  The part-writing here is accomplished without being showy, essential for the mood, and the distant quality of the horn timbre, as well as the tendency by hornists to avoid vibrato, makes this opening as satisfying as it is quiet.

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The second quartet is an "Old German Folk Song", once again given the air of a melody drifting across an alpine valley.  The melody is allowed more sweetness to start and later echoed at pp, only to be all shook up by fanfarish interjections.  There are small details that add to the atmosphere of the piece, a notable one being the quite long pedal tones in the fourth horn, especially that last one, letting the melody repeat into nothingness as if watching the setting sun.  The most important detail, however, are the moments of silence, and if pulled off well they can be essential dramatic statements, proving that silence is the most underrated aspect of music.

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The fourth piece is in the rare "Choeur dansé" form ("Dancing Chorus"), one that I've only ever seen in a scant handful of other pieces:the closing movement of Lyadov's 8 Russian Folk Songs, op. 58, a piece for string quartet by Rimsky-Korsakov written for a collaborative set with Glazunov and Lyadov, a number from a ballet by Jacques Herz (who?) and one of a set of piano pieces by Nikolay Shcherbachyov, another student of Rimsky-Korsakov's who may or may not appear in these blogs (and who also had two relations who were composers, a distant cousin and a nephew).  It's most likely a Russian folk song form that I'm unfamiliar with and hasn't been used much outside of Rimsky-Korsakov's circle (that Herz piece might mean something else, for example), combining heavy chordal writing with lively rhythms.  This is one of the more anodyne ones but isn't without quaint charm, and is arguably the one most likely to be heard in a turn-of-the-century gazebo being performed by a municipal group, much like the Oskar Boehme Sextet.

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Arguably the loveliest of the set is no. 5, "A Russian Folk Song", very Russian indeed and incredibly delicate.  The gradual introduction of interweaving lines is so fine as to send shivers down the spine, and you don't often see a canon at the unison but dang does it ever work here.  Once again Tcherepnin lets certain players stand alone in a field, never using too many notes, and generally writes the song that makes the young girls cry*.

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The closing quartet is a grand chorale, based on "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", one of the best-known hymn tunes of all time.  Each section of the melody is spiced with little moving parts and harmonic subtleties, keeping things fresh even as they're as old as time, a stirring end to a stirring set.  There's one missing here, though, and while I can't talk about it because of its length I can certainly show it, and I can note that it's an excellent bridge between 2 and 4 and easily the most exciting one of the set.

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I can also toss in this performance, one that really shows off the round tone and expressive capabilities of the horn.  See you in the big Tcherepnin tchowcase...


*Under no circumstances will I apologize to Barry Manilow for my actions.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Two Jots from the Early Prime of Kabalevsky

Pedagogical music is great - it's necessary, accessible and has attracted the work of big name composers from across the ages.  The only catch is that, because much of it is simple by design, people who are famous primarily for their pedagogical work, such as Aleksandr Grechaninov, see their other works neglected because audiences don't expect their stuff to be up to "concert" standards.  Case in point: Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987), one of the most famous Soviet composers of all time and one of a scant handful to see their work imported to the US back when we thought that was A-O-K (the '30's and '40's).  Known for his third Piano Concerto and his ballet suite The Comedians, Kabalevsky's most commonly-played stuff are his easier piano pieces, such as the first piano Sonatina and his Variations in D, both of which have been in countless piano collections in the last several decades.  These works are unchallenging for mainstream audiences, not only for their technical ease but also their pleasant Neoclassical language which was forced upon Kabalevsky by Stalinist compositional policy.  Most of Kabalevsky's work is similar in tone if not technical difficulty, but one can find more adventurous stuff if they dig a bit deeper.  My favorite work of Kabalevsky's is one of these alluring few and was written very early in his career, back in the twilight of the hayday of Soviet modernism before the clamps came down.

The Four Preludes, op. 4 were written between 1927 and 1928, the last couple of years before the end of a glorious era in Soviet arts administration that can best be described as a virtuosic free-for-all.  Guys like Roslavets, Mosolov, Lourie and many more really did whatever the hell they wanted in the name of modern music, and it all came crashing down because Stalin and the new, Proletarian-minded arts boards new just enough to be wrong.  Thankfully Kabalevsky wasn't gulag'd and his works have been preserved, such as these warmly experimental miniatures.  The first two are leaf-like so they get the spotlight today, and they're also wildly different from each other.  The first has a precious, childlike melancholy about it, the compact simplicity of the main motive contrasted against aching, chromatic chord undulations in the B section.  This section is a fine example of how tonality can be bent nearly to breaking without sacrificing a good melody/harmony relationship.  The second prelude is almost an etude, a fleet and lovely parallel fourths exercise and showcase for extended modal harmony.  I'd be tempted to add a subtitle about ocean spray or flying, especially because of the excellent decision (either by Kabalevsky or the editor) to add ritenuti here and there to give the impression of sharp swaying.  The other two preludes are a bit longer than these, but because I'm feeling generous (especially after coming off of a spectacular evening performing with my chamber group Cursive) I'll toss in the other two preludes free of charge.

That last one especially sounds quite modern for the time, though not dissonant - makes me think of a wine festival or cottonwood fluff.  Here's a fine recording of the set by Alexandre Dossin, a pianist I had the pleasure of seeing live at UPS many years ago.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Few Oboe Bagatelles for Thursday

NOTE: This article features music tracks auto-generated by YouTube which might not be viewable outside of the U.S.A.

We have entered an age where every living artist, high and low, is expected to have either a personal website or at least a detailed page on another website with a bio, worklist and relevant links, and as user-friendly website-builders become more prevalent the number of living artists without websites (at least in this country) will continue to creep to 0.  Understandably young and obscure artists are the ones that are most likely to lack such internet presence, such as composition students, but once commercial recordings get made of their works it's time to dust off the ol' Wix account.  This message hasn't gotten to some people, of course, as today's subject, Donald Wheelock (b. 1940), is a glaring example.  As of this writing there are at least three commercial CD's dedicated solely to his work with others on compilation discs and this is about as extensive his web presence gets.  That's pathetic; it's just a single paragraph in a white void, without a single work listed or even a photograph.  Part of why I keep harping on the worklist thing is that only four pieces of his have been published, two of which have fallen out of print and one that's only available through a wildly obscure publisher and one of which is only included in the AIDS Quilt Songbook (a detail that Sheet Music Plus doesn't help out with as they don't list individual composers for their copies).  It's a shame because what I've heard of his work is quite promising, ranging from dense-but-appealing Modernism early on, like today's subject, to hallucinatory soundscapes like his his Music for Seven Players and more Neo-Romantic approach more recently, such as with his meaty, early-Schoenberg-ian cello sonata.  One particular work of his that I've been looking at is his Ten Bagatelles for oboe and string quartet, largely because I'm considering it for a program of oboe and string works for my chamber group Cursive (alongside works by Joan Tower, Richard Wernick, Donald Martino, Richard Donovan and David Evan Thomas) but also because there's a lot to love here.  

The Bagatelles are in the long and fine tradition of post-Webern miniatures, often only a minute long but wheedling through tone sets and extended techniques with grace and mystery.  None of them are longer than three pages, which might seem longer than that with something like a piano piece but for five players can be quite short indeed; in fact, these pieces might have the most players ever featured in a leaf on this blog so far, save for a couple of Media Press pieces by James Cuomo and Raymond Weisling.  In the case of the leaves in this piece they can be as short as 20 seconds, which is the case for the one above, which dashes through chromatic counterpoint like a mouse stealing crackers.  All-pizz. string pieces never cease to be entertaining and this one manages to squeeze in a lot of variation on common material in what is barely enough time for the performers to wink at the audience.  Wheelock has well-learned the Schoenbergian lesson that just because a piece is atonal that doesn't mean it can't abide by principles of balance and resonance and give the performers writing well-suited to their instruments.

Mirrors and canons abound in the more sinister second movement, as one tone series will trot through the viola part only to skip across the cello part down an octave a few measures later and the oboe's second bar is revisited on the inverse at the end.  Wheelock must have found a fleck of moon on his sleeve when writing this as it's mood is highly reminiscent of "Der Mondfleck" from Pierrot Lunaire, though I doubt he later attempted to decapitate the oboist, as that song's whirligig insanity is eschewed in favor of walking the dog.

While there are other equally short Bagatelles in the set the eighth is the last neat leaf, and Wheelock unintentionally left the most sumptuous for last.  Set at a very slow 40 eighth notes per minute, the movement plays out like a song of farewell to a blasted landscape, leaning into mysterious, out-the-back-door phrase endings and stuttering entrances.  Those little swells in the last bar were a favorite of Schoenberg and his school, giving each strained chord its own birth and death.  It's around hearing this one that I realized that the same series of notes, most likely a dodecaphonic series, has been running through each piece, and how I might want to do some actual analysis occasionally, though if I did that my readers would all vanish.  For that matter, does that 32nd-note skirting in the first violin in bar 6 really need analysis to stand on its own?  The best music doesn't need to be scientifically proven, it just is, and for 9 minutes the Bagatelles prove themselves over and over again as more than worth their time and an essential addition to the modern oboe repertoire.  I haven't the foggiest as to whether or not Wheelock will make a website in the future, or if the Bagatelles will ever come back into print, but in the meantime you can hear the rest of the piece and others on a CD from Albany records that's going for pretty cheap at the moment, because sometimes the best things in life are cheap after all.


Monday, June 6, 2016


Well, it finally happened - I have my own chamber group.  After years of collecting pieces and yammering about them into the void I finally realized that the first step to accomplishing something is to try.  The group, Cursive, premiered on May 26 with its Black Anemones program, part of its mission to perform neglected modern gems with a modular ensemble, in this case flute, piano, trumpet and voice in different combinations.  On June 9 the final performance of this program will come to pass and I'd be pleased as a punch who is also the jolly good fellow at a New Year's party if everybody could come 'round, and to help publicity I'll be publishing little preview articles on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday showing off bits of our program with hopefully insightful commentary.

Once a blue moon ago I looked at a short piece by Vivian Fine for this blog, a movement from her Four Songs for voice and string quartet.  That dense, pitch black work was from her early years among the American Ultramodernists, and over the years her music went through a more tonal Neoclassicism and out the other side into a refined, personal language with at least a passing resemblance to her fellow female American composition master Miriam Gideon, also covered on these blogs.  The piece we're talking about today, one that Cursive is playing on the 9th, is from her late period and is a fine entry in a genre of piece I wished I saw more - pieces based on single lines of poems.

This genre was covered on Forgotten Leaves before with Vincent Persichetti's excellent Poems for piano, wherein piano miniatures were written from single lines of poems Persichetti liked rather than the full poems (though with attribution for those who wish to investigage).  Fine took this idea a step further by opening up the "first line" index of a collection of Emily Dickinson poems and choosing ones that she thought she could set without reading the poems themselves.  The results are as varied as they are organic, as a swirling, chromatic motive runs through each piece but the moods are all strikingly contrasted.  For the purposes of Forgotten Leaves movements three and four, "Exultation is the Going" and "The Robin is a Gabriel", are leaflike, and the former starts, and continues, with a bang.  The contrasting, off-kilter meters and staggered relationship between the flute and piano make for a piece that requires something of a trance state to pull off.  Those oddly strangled power chords give the pianist a sense of exultation playing them but the subtly slow tempo makes the going heavy and frightening.  It's a real dramatic risk, subjecting an audience to this kind of thing, and Fine was an expert at harnessing that risk to make something great.  Then there's some relief:

The fourth Image has no piano part, allowing the flute to lightly flit across the staff paper without percussive restraints.  As I myself don't know the poems these lines come from I'm not sure how a Robin could be a Gabriel but the effect is quite nice and also reveals the components of the main theme.  In case you're wondering, those parenthetical dotted quarter notes in the fourth stave are just to help rhythms.  It's also nice to be able to write without meter and let phrases be naturalistic.