Brahms: tempo and timbre

Brahms

I’m so utterly in love with Hélène Grimaud‘s piano-playing that I find she dispels all considerations of period style—indeed, pretty much everything else.

Still, inspired by her Brahms, and as early music gets later, I find myself browsing

notably Sherman’s own article:

  • “Metronome marks, timings, and other period evidence for tempo in Brahms”,

covering the range of Brahms’s ouevre—the symphonies, chamber music, the German requiem, and so on.

It’s a topic that has rears its ugly head with the fracas over Norrington’s recordings (cf. the rancorous vibrato debate in Mahler—don’t miss “Roger Norrington’s stupid Mahler Ninth”). Assembling an impressive array of evidence, Sherman’s conclusion is suitably underwhelming:

… in practice, it is evident that Brahms and his contemporaries took varying tempos from performance to performance. […] Brahms clearly did not believe that there is one ideal tempo for a work. He wrote that any “normal person” would take a different tempo “every week”.

Sherman’s website, BTW, is always stimulating.

As with baroque music, the use of historical instruments is an important element in the choice of tempo. As you may have gathered, I’m no purist, but here’s Hardy Rittner playing the 1st piano concerto on an 1854 Erard—like Mozart’s piano, once you’ve adjusted to the timbre, it has a lot to offer over the gargantuan glossiness of the modern instrument, however brilliantly performers like Grimaud manage to overcome it:

The issue of tempo is particularly notable in the Adagio (from 22.18), where the 6/4 metre flows more audibly than in “straight” performances (at least in the orchestral passages—there’s less contrast between the tempi of the piano solos). Whether it’s Adagio or not—let’s keep reading up…

Anyway, now I’d love to hear Grimaud playing it on an Erard, not least because I think she’d find even more potential there for her creative genius. But I’m sure she’s perfectly happy using the modern piano, and that’s fine!

For yet later HIP, try The Rite of Spring. And while we’re on Brahms, again casting aside academic concerns, do bask in Kleiber’s Brahms 2. For the long retardation of Tang music in Japan, see here.

Late Beethoven quartets

Heilige

Through my teens, when I wasn’t listening to the Beatles or reading the Zen classics, I spent much of my time immersing myself in late Beethoven string quartets—almost a definition of “serious music”. And then I got to play them at Cambridge; but later (even before I read Susan McClary) I came to react against his cerebral style. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard a string quartet in live performance since the 1970s.

So after a long absence from these works, it was a suitably intense, immersive experience to hear the Salzburg-based Hagen quartet (no relation to Nina, alas) playing the A minor and C♯ minor quartets the other day at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The three siblings in the group (Lukas, Veronika, and Clemens) have been musicking together since childhood; and Rainer Schmidt replaced a fourth sibling back in 1987. With such long experience their blend of sonority is wondrous; they have clearly thought a lot about vibrato, now using it sparingly—notably Schmidt in the unsung role of 2nd violin.

Whereas the orchestral life can be soul-destroying (see Mozart in the jungle), with as much drudge as ecstasy (and for jazzers too, square notions like health and security tend to get sacrificed in the quest for creative autonomy), from the outside, making a living from chamber music seems like an enviable life—particularly belonging to a string quartet. For the virtuoso soloist, the repertoire is narrower, and travelling solitary; for jobbing orchestral musos, chamber music may serve as a reminder of why they took up music in the first place. Still, only a minority of quartets achieve a reliable “food-bowl”—and even they can’t avoid the trying routine of airports, hotels, and promotions (for insights on the life of a string quartet, see Anthea Kreston’s diary on slippedisc.com, and under Quartets). And of course, such stellar groups are just the tip of the iceberg: there’s a rich repertoire for amateur combos to explore.

* * *

The extreme contrasts of Beethoven’s late quartets display the kind of splintered psyche that only became explored commonly in the 20th century. Besides Joseph Kerman’s classic The Beethoven quartets (1967), among myriad discussions of the A minor quartet, see here; it has been much analysed, not least by Susan McClary in Conventional wisdom. Indeed, it has been cited as a counterbalance on the importance of analysing any world music, such as aboriginal dream songs.

Like the Bach Air, the Adagietto of Mahler 5, or indeed Daoist hymns, the Heiliger Dankgesang (also the well-chosen name for PDQ Bach‘s co-commentator) is even more intense when heard live in the context of the whole work. Here’s the Hagen quartet’s 2005 recording (from this playlist):

Since then, to judge from the concert, they may further refined the purity of their timbre for this movement and others such as of the penultimate Adagio of the C♯ minor quartet, often sounding even more like a viol consort.

Going back to the 1930s, when the use of vibrato was in flux, the seminal recordings of the Busch quartet (at Abbey road!) from 1936–37, on the eve of devastating global warfare, are less sparing with vibrato:

And here the Heiliger Dankgesang is much more molto adagio too:

And here are the 2017 recordings by the Quatuor mosaïques on original instruments—in line with changing modern tastes:

And, as a bonus, nearly two centuries after its premiere (which Beethoven missed as he was down the pub) the Große Fuge (or “The grocer” as it’s known in the biz) is even more challenging and revolutionary—like The Rite of Spring, its aural bombardment is always a shock:

Anyway, with fresh ears, I found the Hagen quartet’s concert most inspiring. So much for the apogee of “serious music” in WAM: for the global picture, do click here.

To end on a lighter and typically unsuitable note, click here for the creative tribulations of the composer according to Monty Python, and here for their Beethoven LP (“The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun…”).

Mahler 5 as you’ve never heard it

Mahler 5

Given that I adore Mahler 5, this is a strange way to introduce it. But having already delighted in Pachelbel’s capon, another gem from Two Set Violin‘s rubber chicken playlist is this unlikely rendition of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo—and it’s even funnier if you share my veneration for the work:

Just as well John Wilbraham didn’t know about this—he might have found the temptation too hard to resist.

On that trumpet solo, here’s an interesting post, that supplements Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective (no turn unstoned) with early reviews of the symphony like

Ugly symphony is well played . . . Mahler of Vienna writes bad music.

A long and tedious work.

I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live … It is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago.

Of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve.

Hmm. Given that I entirely share the modern veneration for Mahler (this is the latest addition to my Mahler tag), and for the 5th symphony in particular, I don’t seem to be making much of a case for it. Just as relishing Always look on the bright side of life needn’t spoil our appreciation of the Bach Passions, please don’t let all this put you off the Real Thing— here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil yet again:

And the great Klaus Tennstedt in a recording from 1980:

And Claudio Abbado in 2004:

For S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement, click here; and for a creative use of the Adagietto, here.

Unpacking “improvisation”

Improvisation in music is a concept that can easily mislead. The popular cliché is to contrast jazz and Indian raga with the detailed, fixed prescriptions of WAM; rather, it’s profitable to subsume improvisation under the whole process of musical creation, considering more and less flexible frameworks for performance.

Bruno Nettl has paid much attention to the subject, co-editing two splendid books:

  • Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russell (eds.), In the course of performance: studies in the world of musical improvisation (1998)
  • Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl (eds.), Musical improvisation: art, education, and society (2009).

In Chapter 4 of his masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, “Inspiration and perspiration: creative processes”, Nettl unpacks the issues in typically illuminating fashion. Pondering “What is the nature of musical creation?”, he explores the continuums mediating between composition and performance. Here’s a typical passage showing how he treats all human musickings on a equal footing:

Schubert is said to have composed a song while waiting to be served at a restaurant (presumably by a slow waiter), quickly writing it on the back of a menu; Mozart turned out some of his serenades and sonatas almost overnight; and Theodore Last Star, a Blackfoot singer and medicine man, had visions in each of which, in the space of a brief moment, he learned, from a guardian spirit, a new song. But Brahms labored for years on his first symphony, Beethoven planned and sketched ideas for his Ninth for over two decades, and William Shakespear, an Arapaho elder, said that when he took a motif from one song, something else from another, and a phrase from a third, thus making up a Peyote song, it might take him a good part of an afternoon. The xylophonist of a Chopi orchestra made up music as he went along, but he was constrained by rules articulated by his leader. The North Indian sitarist sits down before his audience and creates a performance of new music on the spot, but he can do this only because for hours every day he practices exercises that he has memorized, as he maintains in his mind a musical vocabulary on which he can draw and a group of rules that tell him, once he has selected a raga, what he must, may, or cannot do. A Kentucky mountaineer about 1910 sang “The Two Sisters” in a tavern, his friends admiring a new twist he put into the refrain. And the overjoyed Bach lover after the cello recital exclaims, “She’s never played it like this before. She makes the suite live like no one else.” In some sense, each of these musicians has created music, but music scholars actually know very little about the way in which such music comes about, especially in its innovative aspect, which is what they most admire. They believe, as Blum (2009) explains in detail, that when music is produced (in any sense of the word), something new is being created.

There is innovation—of different sorts—in the composition of a symphony, in the jazz improvisation on a well-known show tune, in the unique rendition of a Japanese chamber work that has been handed down with little change for generations, or in a rendition of a standard string quartet. Ethnomusicologists in particular must deal with what is new, new in a sense generally understood by them but new also within the specific cognitive framework and understanding of its culture.

But what is “newness”? Speaking cross-culturally, what may be heard as new composition in one culture might be regarded as simple variation in another. Judging the degree of innovation is a tricky business. The Persian improviser who by the standards of European composition gives his audience something different each time he performs may not be, in his own manner of musical thought, doing something really new, but simply “playing a particular mode”. By contrast, the Blackfoot singer who learned a song in a vision may have thought of it as a new song, even if objectively it sounded virtually identical to a song that had been received by one of his friends in another vision. The South Indian musician with a penchant for giving her audience unexpectedly strange vocalizations runs the risk of rendering something outside the realms of propriety and being criticized for not knowing her basic material. The American composer who writes a piece inspired by Hindemith or Stravinsky might be criticized for presenting something belonging to the past and thus not properly innovative.

Nettl goes on to suggest three intersecting continuums:

it is also the result of the manipulation and rearrangement of the units of a given vocabulary, of hard work and concentration. The concepts of inspiration, of genius, and of acquiring music directly from supernatural sources are very widespread among human societies, simple and complex. Haydn worked regular hours and depended on some kind of inspiration; when it did not come, he prayed for it, rather like the Native American seeking a vision who is also, in effect, praying for songs. At the other end of the line is the concept of composition as an essentially intellectual activity, in which the musician consciously manipulates the materials, or building blocks, of music […]. […] The listener may be unaware of all the care that went into the preparation of this complex structure. But such an approach is not limited to societies with written notation and music theory texts. Native American composers of Peyote songs may be equally careful, using and abiding by general structural principles that govern the song, musically making clear a number of intricate relationships, deriving new phrases from earlier ones, all within a rather rigidnly defined formal framework. Yet it seems unlikely that the typical Native American listener understands the details of the structure.

The two ends of the continuum merge: Mozart’s music sounds to many divinely inspired, and we know it was often composed quickly, yet has incredible consistency and great complexity. The songs of the Yahi of California, sung by Ishi, the last “wild” Indian, each ten seconds long and using only some three or four tones, exhibit considerable sophistication in their internal interrelationships, with a logic not totally unlike that of Mozart. An Iranian musician says that his improvised performance comes “from the heart”, but analysis shows us highly structured and sophisticated patterns unique to the performer. A performer of improvised Indian alapana learns a vast repertory of melodic and rhythmic units that can and must be interrelated in many ways, exhibiting her skill in showing the multitude of combinations she can control, yet many in her culture regard this music as essentially spiritual. Each case confronts us with aspects of both ends of the continuum, obviously in different proportions.

  • From improvisation to composition—two versions of the same process. Again, Nettl compares Schubert’s rapid composition of a sonata with the assembly of an Indian improvisation: “the fact that Schubert used paper and pen might actually be considered incidental”. He suggests that even the gigantic labour of composing a symphony is cognate with the technique of a Yahi Indian composer, and that Horowitz’s multiple renditions of Beethoven may be compared with an Arabic musician performing the maqam.
  • From precomposition to composition to revision: another process common worldwide, played out over years or minutes.

Nettl then stresses the false dichotomy between the composing of “art” and “folk” musics:

There seems no reason to regard composition in cultures with oral and written traditions as different species. […] In each culture, the musician is “given” something and then has the job of adding something else, but there are many different kinds of “given” and “added”.

Discussing the balance between the two, he concedes that there are many societies in which innovation is restricted, adducing Anglo-American folk song and South Indian kriti.

What is “given” to the creator of music are the building blocks and the rules of what may be done with them; innovation consists of how the options are exercised.

Finally Nettl homes in on “improvisation”—whose definition as “the creation of music in the course of performance” already looks dubious. As always, he gives useful leads to the whole history of research on such topics. He praises Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, the classic analysis of the diverse elements on which jazz performers draw.

As improvisation received more attention, ethnomusicologists also began to see it as complex syndrome of behaviors, and the distinction from traditionally conceived composition began to blur.

He notes the role of improvisation in WAM, from early performances where “the quality of musicianship is judged by the degree to which the improvised piece sounds as if it were not improvised” to the 19th-century rhapsodies and impromptus, which were “composed and written out but seem to be intended to make the listener think they are improvised, or at least somehow connected with an immediacy and spontaneity of creation”.

Left: Clara Schumann with Robert; right: Dariush Talai.

It’s good to find WAM taking its place where it belongs, within ethnomusicology, or “all the musics of the world”. In the later history of WAM, as increasingly prescriptive notation (a red herring: see also here), and the recording industry, came to limit improvisation, I can’t help feeling that WAM musicians have sacrificed a lot.

Themes in the collection Musical improvisation include Ukrainian funeral laments, jazz, and Persian music—and several authors write on WAM, including Robert Levin, whose renditions of Mozart, notably his improvised cadenzas, are so brilliant. We might now hear much of the romantic piano repertoire as improvisations to which performers gave a fixed form, as Messiaen did later with his Messe de la Pentecôte.

Indeed, it makes sense to suggest that the kinds of things we call improvisation exhibit such variety—everything from simply adding ornaments to a composition to totally (well, almost totally) “free” improvisation, from oral composition to following precise rules in re-creation—and are practised in so many cultures that improvisation ought to be considered the central form of music creation, with traditional Western-style composition, with pen and ink, as a highly developed subtype.

In his introduction to In the course of performance Nettl also mentions Albert Lord’s 1965 The singer of tales and the study of Gregorian chant. Among topics covered in the volume are Javanese gamelan, African–American girls’ singing games, Italian folk song, and the Preludes of Clara Schumann (for an idea of how she might have improvised, do listen to Hélène Grimaud‘s playing in the Brahms concertos—in particular the slow movements!). See also the Dream songs of Australian aborigines.

All this also suggests ways of understanding the whole range of musicking in China: shawm bands (whose music, misleadingly, often sounds “improvised”), silk-and-bamboo (perhaps akin to Irish music—the heterophony of instrumental ensembles is often akin to the ornamentations and divisions of early WAM); as well as folk song, the qin zither (e.g. here), the parameters of performing Daoist ritual, and so on. And it makes yet another caveat against reification: performance as process.

Reading Nettl is endlessly stimulating.

Yin and yang: the divine Hélène Grimaud

 

More images here.

On this blog I’ve already featured the radiant magic of Hélène Grimaud, in

—all of which you simply must listen to. Here’s a further hommage.

See also her 2003 memoir Variations sauvages, English translation Wild harmonies: a life of music and wolves, 2007); and for a most insightful article, do read this New Yorker piece from 2011.

Since her London appearances are far too infrequent (her next visit is not until June 2020—has she really not come here since her numinous “Water” recital at the Barbican in 2015?), I resort to relishing her performances of the two colossal Brahms piano concertos online. Here’s a trailer:

And the two concertos complete:

For a sequel on tempo and timbre in Brahms, with a HIP version of the 1st concerto, see here.

I trust you too will be unable to resist going on to admire her live performances of both works online (here and here)—indeed whole days can, and should, go by as you bask in all of her ouevre there.

OK, one can’t help noticing that she is one of the most entrancingly beautiful people ever to grace the planet—neither here nor there, one might say, but her own unassuming radiance goes hand in hand with her music. She embodies a perfect combination of yin and yang, with both innige spiritual intimacy and intensely muscular emotional intelligence.

Here she gives an interview in French on the Rachmaninoff concerto and Abbado:

Here she plays Schumann with Ann Sofie von Otter:

And returning to the Ravel concerto, here’s the exquisite slow movement again:

 

 

 

Meredith Monk

MM

Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991):

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.

 

 

The Masque of the Red Death

Poe—Caplet—Corman

 

Caplet

Here’s some seasonal macabre.

The Conte fantastique after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:

The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.

Caplet

Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source: http://www.musimem.com/prix-rome-1900-1909.htm

Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):

film

Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer: