Posts Tagged ‘Dvorak’

Krzysztof Urbanski makes Berlin Philharmonic Debut

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

If Krzysztof Urbanski’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic late last month should serve as any indication, this is a conductor whom we can expect to hear again soon at the Philharmonie. The young Polish native, quickly on the rise on the both sides of the Atlantic, presided over an all-Czech program on May 25 in which his fluent virtuosity and wise modesty were equally on display.

In the opening movement of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, a less-often performed worked commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society in 1884, he managed to give fierce attacks before allowing the music to release into the players’ hands. When the light pours into this predominantly melancholy work with the entrance of a solo horn in the following Poco Allegro, Urbanski created a buoyancy that distracted from the work’s Brahmsian influence.

The Scherzo was furious but elegant through pounding dance-like rhythms, and he created a powerful tension in the apocalyptic moments of the final movement that recede again into melancholy. Curving his fingers into gallant gestures with his left hand while using the baton in his right hand to phrase with clear, sweeping movements, he kept the orchestra on its toes as the piece drew to a majestic close.

The Philharmonic’s dark strings, clean brass and chiselled woodwinds were at natural service of the drama, even more so than in two symphonic poems from Smetana’s Ma vlast cycle, which opened the evening. While the ripples of the Moldau emerged elegantly in the second poem, recalling Wagner’s music for the Rhine in the Ring cycle with the entrance of the brass, the soaring main melody evoking the composer’s Czech homeland sounded tense despite the violins’ rich tone (concert master Andreas Buschatz).

The following portrayal of the mythic figure of Sarka in the third poem bounded forth with authentic folk rhythms, elegant clarinet solos from Andreas Ottensamer, and frenzied strings but also gentle lyricism in the inner Moderato section. Urbanski at times danced on the podium but knew when to dig in with his baton, such as in the following fugal passage which he held together with fierce precision.

The evening’s most exciting bit of programming was Martinu’s First Cello Concerto featuring Sol Gabetta, whose visceral exchanges with the Philharmonic captured the chamber music underpinnings of the work, revised and expanded by the composer for full orchestra following its 1938 premiere. She was not afraid to draw harsh sounds from her instrument but also moved seamlessly into a gentle, lyric pianissimo during the cadenza-like passage that closes the first movement.

Picking up the melody of the winds that open the following Andante, she captured the music’s introspection while allowing her fiery personality to shine through. The orchestra’s strings created a gentle bed beneath her, Martinu’s harmonies shifting like shades of color in a watercolour painting.

Gabetta moved with playful ease through the freely conceived rhythms of the final movement while remaining on point with the orchestra’s pizzicati and fragmented responses. Her coordination with was so Urbanski natural as to be barely perceptible.

An Italian, and possibly a Swiss, Symphony at the Philharmonie

Friday, January 11th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Journeys have provided powerful inspiration to writers, painters and composers alike, opening eyes to new ways of seeing the world. The broadening of artists’ palettes has sometimes allowed them to capture a landscape more vividly than the natives could themselves. One only has to think of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Gauguin’s portraits of French Polynesia (colonialist considerations aside), and—at least for an outsider— Mendelssohn’s Fourth, or Italian, Symphony. Riccardo Chailly, guest conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on January 9, juxtaposed this work with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, which in a similar vein was likely inspired by a trip to either Switzerland or Upper Bavaria.

Bruckner is easily the most provincial Romantic composer to have entered the symphonic canon, having rarely ventured outside his native Austria and devoting much of his opus to sacred works. Passages of the opening movement of the Sixth deviate strongly from the stormy, fretful tone one associates with his symphonies, with an exotic modal brass motive and a positively sunny melody for the violins. Program notes suggest that an underlying, one could say proto-minimalist, string texture represents the motoric drive of a train, while the trumpets herald new earthly vistas. Chailly’s vigorous, scooping gestures brought out the might of the Philharmonic.

The following Adagio brims with Mahlerian stillness, which the conductor savoured to melting effect. Even if Bruckner was not referring to the Swiss Alps, he suggests a heaven on earth that sounds very close. It is also worth noting that Mahler made several changes to the symphony before it had its first full performance in 1899, 18 years after Bruckner had completed it. By the third movement, the composer has—at least stylistically—returned closer to home terrain, with menacing blows of fate and bombastic, descending tutti passages, although there is an almost classical alternation between forte and piano sections.

The finale further vacillates between the serene and the tempestuous, with declamatory Wagnerian harmonies in the brass contrasted against delicate, protesting pizzicati and a fleeting waltz-like melody that, in the context of a journey, indicates a certain wistfulness for the fatherland. The symphony ends with a fervor that Chailly brought to a resounding close. Although the horns of the Philharmonic have even more precise on other occasions, it hardly mattered in the wider scheme of this bracing performance.

Mendelssohn’s Fourth emerged with tremendous care for dynamic contrast and shape of phrase as Chailly held thorough, but unaffected, control over the orchestra. Most impressive were the perfectly-built crescendi and decrescendi that emerged, particularly in the third movement Con moto moderato, and beautifully rounded, legato lines. Mendelssohn’s economic orchestration at times calls to mind a chamber ensemble, which the Philharmonic brought out through its characteristically tight communication between sections, particularly in the last two movements.

Concert Master of the evening Daishin Kashimoto led the violins with great precision, although the sound could have been warmer in fortissimo passages. Solo Clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer played with particular finesse in the Andante movement, characterized by sensuous, swelling lines throughout the orchestra and a touch of melancholy. True to his ‘German’ spirit, Mendelssohn does not only convey the pleasures of fine wine and sunshine but a deeply introspective, nostalgic view of the world. Perhaps this is why his symphonic portrait of Italy resonates so strongly.

Rediscovered Voices in the Studio: ‘Es geht wohl anders’ and ‘Czech Flute Music’

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

by Rebecca Schmid

The historical forces that decide which composers enter the canon often seem beyond our control. Why Brahms should become hackneyed while chamber music enthusiasts are not familiar with the name Martinu continues to frustrate musicians and critics alike, and yet a refreshing trend seems to be emerging. As Anne Midgette writes this week in The Washington Post,  lesser known composers have been proliferating in studios in recent years, although she points out that this hasn’t had much of an effect on the adventurousness of programming in American symphonic life. Germany doesn’t have that problem—the Berlin Philharmonic programmed a subscription concert of Lachenmann alongside Bruckner last season, just to name an example—but orchestras of course have another set of social issues to deal with in the concert hall (a performance of Strauss’s 1943 Festmusik der Stadt Wien raising some eyebrows two seasons ago).

As Europe attempts to reinvent itself as a border-free continent of tolerance and democracy, the twentieth century’s unknowns—namely the exiles of World War Two—are increasingly being accorded special attention. One of the recent projects that came into my hands is the series ExilArte  that the Austrian label Gramola has dedicated to the works of exiled Jewish-Austrian composers. “The so-called ‘annexation’ (der Anschluss) of Austria by Germany in 1938 robbed many people of human rights through systematic threats and displacement,” states the project’s website. “The cultural barbarism of the National Socialists silenced creative achievements for decades.” Egon Wellesz, Hans Gál, Ernst Toch, Ralph Benatzky, Emmerich Kálmán, Walter Jurmann, and Fritz Kreisler are among the “ostracized composers” represented.

The selection serves as a reminder that serialism and other avant-garde developments only constitute part of recent musical history. Es geht wohl anders is dedicated to the songs of Walter Arlen, who integrates expressionism and popular influence to satisfying effect. Arlen, who fled to Chicago at age 19 with five dollars in his pocket, “meek, cowed, insecure, my father in a concentration camp, my mother in a state of nervous collapse,” is consciously impervious to external constructs, letting each song follow his personal reaction to the poetry at hand. In his cycle The Song of Songs (1952, recomposed 1994), “As an Apple Tree” creates the slightly inebriated sensation of having just fallen in love, while “Upon My Bed by Night” used jagged textures to paint the dark tableau of a restless soul, only to semi-quote the melody of the first song in the final utterance of the piano.

Arlen’s setting of Five Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated into English, reveals a deep introspection in connection with the poetry, often indulging in painterly effects such as when the willows sway in “Does he Belong here?” or when the chill of winter arrives in “Be in Advance of all parting.” The title song, “Es geht wohl anders,” is set to poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff, a neighbour of the Arlen family in Vienna. The inextricable intermingling of resignation and hope is a fitting sentiment: when the composer wrote the song in 1938, his father was already imprisoned and his mother under suicide watch. The most tortured music emerges in Czeslaw Milosz’s cycle The Poet in Exile. While harmonic colors sometimes verge on the muddy, Arlen maintains steady attention to word painting, drawing the listener into the vicissitudes of his emotional world. The double-disc further includes settings Shakespeare, Frost, and other lesser-known poets. Performances are divided between American soprano Rebecca Nelsen and German baritone Christian Immler, who both impress with clear diction and convincing emotional investment, yet Nelsen’s lush timbre and ability to balance technical control with abandon in the music are most affecting. Danny Driver provides precise, charged accompaniment, always well-calibrated with the singers.

Czech Flute Music
The overshadowed voices of the former Austro-Empire are also the subject of Czech Flute Music, the latest album of Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Flutist Jeffrey Khaner. The album features sonatas by Erwin Schulhoff, Jindrich Feld and Bohuslav Martinu as well as a Dvorák Sonatina that was originally written for violin but transcribed for both flute and viola following the work’s popularity. Schulhoff, who perished in a Bavarian concentration camp in 1942, represents the kind of musical eclecticism that, as Alex Ross writes in The Rest of Noise, was “effectively wiped out” between the wars. The composer synthesized the influences of everyone from Dvorak and Scriabin to the Second Viennese School, from the Dadaist painter George Grosz to jazz. This unself-conscious spirit of adventure also reveals itself in the other composers represented on the album, leaving the listener full of visions of how this music might have developed had twentieth-century politics taken a different turn.

Khaner and his accompanist Charles Abramovic perform exquisitely on all tracks, yet the Schulhoff leaves an indelible mark on the listener. According to liner notes by Malcolm MacDonald, the composer was at the height of his fame when he composed the sonata in 1927—a year before Erich Kleiber conducted his First Symphony in Berlin. Khaner takes a swift tempo in the opening Allegro moderato that gives the swirling melodic figures and vibrant rhythms just the right playfulness. This is music that never grows wearing, exulting in free lyricism with shades of polytonality that tease the ear. Khaner’s impeccable breath control in the elegaic line of the Aria movement ironically calls to mind an ‘endless melody,’ although the composer restores a sense of dance-like movement in the closing Rondo. The outer movements of the following sonata by Feld, written for the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1954, take this colourful, restless character a step further while revealing a taste for neo-classicism.

Martinu may be more of a household name than Schulhoff or Feld, but given the volume of chamber music he left behind, it is surprising that he is just starting to receive more attention in the western world. The rhythmic variety and structural freedom he takes in his Sonata No.1, written on Cape Cod in 1945, is fresh but soothing. As the flute chirps and muses with the piano as its anchor, Khaner and Abramovic move between the adamant and the serene with ease. Dvorak´s Sonatina in G evokes his American exile even more directly with references to Native American Indian and Negro spirituals, as the program notes explain, but clings to classical formulas that Martinu chose to overturn. The work provides a comforting familiarity but is also cast in a new light within the context of the album; the sighing melody of the Larghetto is tinged with an almost prophetic sadness before yielding to the folk-like Molto Vivace.

‘Czech Flute Music´ is currently available for purchase on Avie Records.