There are two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. (Robert Benchley, 1921)
Can’t help wondering whether Benchley hung around with audiophiles. Or at least with music lovers. After all, we’re just as fond of dualisms as the next guy.
Tubes or transistors? Analog or digital? Bagatelles or dithyrambs? Re that last pair, I’ve been listening to some of each lately, and let me tell you, it’s hard to settle on a preference. A bagatelle is a trifle—a short, presumably insubstantial work that the composer doesn’t want to worry into a proper sonata movement or rhapsody. Beethoven famously wrote a bunch of them for piano in his more unbuttoned moments (although that’s a weird metaphor for old Ludwig Van, who by all accounts didn’t do a lot of buttoning up in his later years). You undoubtedly know one of his bagatelles, Für Elise. (No, he didn’t label it as such, but that’s what it was. And no, I will not provide an audio clip.)
The dithyramb, on the other hand, originated with the ancient Greeks and meant a hymn danced and sung in honor of Dionysus. Such hymns were said to possess a “wild and ecstatic character,” exercising their “highly-wrought vocabulary” in the service of “considerable narrative content.” Or so Wikipedia says. It also tells us that choruses of up to fifty men or boys engaged in song-and-dance competitions during the feasts of Dionysus. Aristotle assumed that Athenian tragedy itself had evolved out of the dithyrambs, so they must have been quite substantial pieces of cultural production—no trifles there. (Is Matisse’s “The Dance” also a dithyramb?)
Although I’ve been a Beethoven bagatelle fan for a long time, the newest bagatelles to land in my listening room come from composer Ernö Dohnányi (1877–1960), courtesy of Martin Roscoe’s newly launched series on Hyperion (The Complete Solo Piano Music, vol. 1, CDA67871). Mr. Roscoe is a pianist of superior skills, and it has been a joy to explore music by Dohnányi, about whom I knew very little. Born in Hungary (in Pozsony, which is now Bratislava and now in Slovakia), he lived in Vienna, then Berlin while building an international career as pianist and composer. After returning to Hungary in 1915, he quickly became a major force in Hungarian music. But successive changes in political regimes, not to mention the worsening climate for artists brought about by Nazi influence and then the Russian occupation, led him to flee his native soil in 1944. By 1949 he found himself teaching piano and composition at Florida State University. Regardless of circumstances, he continued to compose; one of the attractive things about Martin Roscoe’s CD is that it contains piano music from various periods in Dohnányi’s career.
Dohnányi’s 1905 Winterreigen, op. 13, subtitled “Ten Bagatelles,” gives us some good examples of the genre. These are short “character” pieces. Each except the first and last bears a reference or dedication to a friend he had made in Vienna. What a marvelous way to salve your homesickness (he had just taken up residence in Berlin) and salute your oldest and dearest friends (he was not yet 30). In the first and last pieces Dohnányi paid tribute to Robert Schumann, his distinguished predecessor in the short-character-piece department, borrowing a melody from Schumann’s Papillons for the first movement (and calling it Widmung, a well-used Schumann song title). For the last movement, he spelled out “adieu” with the pitches A-D-E. Schumann had employed a similar technique in several works including Carnaval, which memorialized the women in his life, his alter egos Eusebius and Florestan, and other musicians.
Let’s listen to a bit of An Ada (“To Ada”), third piece in Dohnányi’s op. 13. The wonder of his little exercise on three notes here (A-D-A) is not that, like Schumann, he could build an entire piece around a few repeated pitches. That was the easy part. What counts is that he constantly—but in the most natural way—varied the setting, changing up cadences, harmonies, countermelodies, and more. The whole of it leaves us with an indelible impression of one young lady and the bittersweet memories she left with one of her more talented admirers.
Likewise, the delicate traceries of the fifth piece, Sphärenmusik (“Planet Music”), create a sense that we have gone stargazing with one very astute observer of the heavenly bodies. Listen to the simple means with which Dohnányi sets the scene—widely spaced chords occupying the highest and lowest registers of the keyboard—and then immediately begins weaving in our stargazer’s overawed response to the celestial glories on hand:
In six minutes, the music builds to a transcendental peak before subsiding into quiet handfuls of stardust.
I hope this has already convinced you to give Dohnányi a try. If not, here’s one more trifle, from the Three Singular Pieces he wrote in 1951, in Tallahassee. This “Nocturne (Cats on the Roof)” seems bluesy, relaxed, down-home. I’ll bet those were Florida cats.
On to the dithyrambs. If you’ve heard of Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951) at all, it’s probably in connection with the remarkable piano pieces he called skazki (“tales”). Medtner was a prolific composer, a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and a fellow Russian, and he wrote mostly piano music. But whereas you could characterize Rachmaninoff’s output as sensuous, diffuse and somewhat slick, Medtner favored tighter control over his material. He went in for things like motivic/thematic unity, good counterpoint, a sense of proportion. As his biographer Malcolm Boyd put it, “Medtner’s dedication to what he considered the immutable laws of his art was such that for him composition amounted almost to a profession of faith. . . . His music has a priestly quality to which not everyone can respond.”
This “priestly quality” is on full display in Medtner’s Dithyramb, op. 10 no. 2, “Mit höchstem Pathos” (“With the most exalted fervor”). He directs that it is to be played “in the manner of a sermon, that is of a theme freely interpreted and varied.” Listen:
We have been hearing music from a new Medtner medley, Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies and Other Short Piano Works, available as a 2-disc set from Hyperion (CDA67851/2). The pianist is Hamish Milne, who brought forth an equally distinguished set of the Skazki a few years ago (Hyperion CDA67491/2, 2007). In his helpful booklet notes, Milne explores further the question of what dithyramb actually meant to Medtner. He theorizes that the composer was probably more familiar with Schiller’s poem of the same title than with the ancient Greek categories. And what Schiller meant was a general paean to the gods. So, for Milne, “we can deduce that [Medtner] thought of it as some kind of solemn ceremony or celebration, almost a ritual.”
Not that everything on the new Medtner set is equally profound—and I mean that in a good way. Here, for example, is a bagatelle, or more precisely, a charming Caprice from his op. 4, published in 1904 but including at least one piece written during Medtner’s adolescent years:
Rachmaninoff paid Medtner a backhanded compliment when he said that, alone among his peers, Medtner had “from the beginning, published works that it would be hard for him to equal in later life.” Hmm. Perhaps this music makes the point.
It certainly motivated me to turn again toward the skazki, those exceptionally rich character pieces for which Medtner was so renowned. Each seems like a separate tale from the Arabian Nights (Hyperion obligingly illustrated Milne’s 2007 collection with flying-carpet cover art). Their brooding harmonies often flash through the lower reaches of the keyboard, creating a special “Medtner sound,” even as quicksilver figures in the right hand offer more conventional Romantic gestures. We close with just one of the skazki, Milne again at the piano:
And In Conclusion: Three Recordings To Get Right Now
Sorry about the hard sell. I try to wait until the seasons change before putting out a new-releases report. But that would mean denying you the pleasure of sampling these recordings now—not to mention my pleasure in scooping TAS or Stereophile. I do get a kick out of that. So:
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2 (“A London Symphony”); Serenade to Music. Rochester Philharmonic, Christopher Seaman (conductor). Harmonia Mundi HMU 807567 (CD/SACD, 2012).
Witold Lutosławski: Orchestral Works II. Symphonic Variations; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Variations on a Theme of Paganini; Symphony No. 4. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Louis Lortie (piano), Edward Gardner (conductor). Chandos CHSA 5098 (CD/SACD, 2012).
W. A. Mozart: “Coronation” Mass KV 317; Ave verum Corpus KV 618; Missa brevis KV 192; Exsultate, jubilate KV 165; Church Sonatas KV 67 and 224. Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, St. John’s Sinfonia, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor). Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0786 (CD, 2012).
Hard on the heels of the Oregon Symphony’s magnificent reading of RVW’s Symphony No. 4, here we have another great Vaughan Williams work delivered in demonstration-quality sound, with a performance to match. This is not just a “keeper,” it amounts to a rediscovery of this much-loved work. For one thing, conductor Seaman, an old hand in this repertoire, is both fleet of foot and an affectionate guardian of many special moments. That’s no mean trick. This performance clocks in at considerably shorter timings than many of the most celebrated renditions, and yet one never feels rushed. Instead, the energy of London street life at the turn of the previous century comes through more convincingly than ever. And when the composer pauses for another look, or for a memory that has floated to the surface, that registers properly too. Listen:
What a dynamic performance, right? And the sound! You will marvel at Vaughan Williams’ way of threading a musical line through various timbral identities, e.g. from horn to low strings to English horn, all of which can be heard clearly—but not clinically—here. Producer Robina Young and engineer Brad Michel have done their usual fine work. Indispensable.
Maybe you are not such a huge Lutosławski fan. To which I can only respond: huh? Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) was yet another of those 20th-century composers who ranged far and wide in his middle years, helping create the sounds of the so-called avant-garde along with Penderecki, Ligeti, and the other texturalists and timbre-nuts. He then settled into a long creative autumn, writing music that drew upon those innovations but engaged audiences anew with genuine warmth, wit, color, and rhythm. The works on the new Chandos disc were written between 1936 and 1992, which is to say both before and after Lutosławski’s wild-oats period. They are uniformly a delight, albeit in different ways. Just check out the first moments of his Piano Concerto, written for Krystian Zimerman:
I didn’t think anyone could possibly do a better job than Zimerman himself, with the composer conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 431 664-2). That is a wonderfully atmospheric, coherent performance. But Lortie and Gardner make it still sharper, more conversational, more colorful. Other works on the disc also benefit from this expert treatment. I was especially struck by the lyric intensity of Symphony No. 4, which does not come through nearly as well in other recordings of that work. The spacious multichannel sound helps too.
And now we move from the dry environs of the BBC (Walthamstow Assembly Hall) to the very wet acoustic of St. John’s College Chapel. Both of the Mozart Masses on the St. John’s disc date from that composer’s years of apprenticeship in Salzburg. Indeed, all of his completed Mass Ordinaries fall into the category of “early works.” It hardly matters. These are compact in form but often lavish in instrumentation, full of musicianly invention. The “Coronation” Mass, written shortly after the 22-year-old Mozart was appointed Court Organist, greets us with trumpets and drums, horns and oboes, trombones and strings:
Oh, and singers, of course! The full-throated glories of the Choir of St. John’s alternate with some of the loveliest solo work I have ever heard soprano Susan Gritton turn in. She is well-matched with the other members of the vocal quartet. Conductor Nethsingha has wisely interleaved the movements of KV 317 with “church sonatas,” chamber music meant for quasi-liturgical substitution, just as would have occurred during services in Mozart’s time. The other Mass is even more brevis, but you will recognize the four-note theme of the Credo fugue: it’s what Mozart used years later to wind up Symphony No. 41 in C, “Jupiter.” Here’s a bit of Gritton to serve as benediction to our column, as she so ably does for the whole Mozart effort from St. John’s.
Next time: What’s new about “new music”?