Posts Tagged ‘Martinu’

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.

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.

New Releases: ‘Almost Truths and Open Deceptions’; ‘Opus 1’

Friday, July 27th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The New York-based composer Annie Gosfield is best known for her synthesis of industrial sounds and other unconventional sampling into rock-inflected, yet often intricately wrought, compositions. As a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin last semester, she researched encrypted radio broadcasts from World War Two—part of a long-standing fascination with archaic technology and its unusual sounds—for a new violin work that will premiere at the Gaudemaus Muziekweek in the Netherlands this September. Satellite transmissions, the clanking of junkyard metal, factory machinery, destroyed pianos, and detuned radios have all been repurposed in Gosfield’s repertory, to often surprisingly lyrical effect. Underlying many of these explorations is a highly personal thread. “Daughters of the Industrial Revolution” (2011), the most recent work on her upcoming album, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, was inspired by her grandparents’ experience as immigrant workers on the Lower East Side. “I am a third generation daughter of the industrial revolution,” she writes in program notes, “linked to this history, not only genetically and geographically, but as a composer who often uses raw materials and transforms them into something new.”

The assembly-line rhythms, sampled from a factory in Nuremburg, unshackled electric guitar, ringing sampler melody and percussion in the approximately five-minute excerpt from this work create a punk rock-like fare that contrasts sharply with the album’s title work, a chamber concerto with a cello part written for Felix Fan at its center. The title “Almost Truths and Open Deceptions” refers to the movement of the entire ensemble toward “a mass of open D strings,” as Gosfield explains. At the end of the 24-minute work, the instruments settle through wilting glissandos into a decaying unison that fades ghostlike. The concerto opens with brash string attacks, wild circling motives and pulsing forward motion that settles down deceitfully, foreshadowing the piece’s conclusion, before ceding to a cello that implores and groans. Intimate, folky exchanges between the piano, violin, and cello ensue in the course of the work’s impending movement, propelled through variegated rhythms and animated melodic writing, with a percussive interlude that teases the listener as much as it creates suspense.

‘Almost truths’ would also seem to apply to the album’s first track, “Wild Pitch” (2004), with its double-entendre in reference to “a baseball game gone mad” as well as the musical sense of the word. Fan again takes center stage along with the members of his trio “Real Quiet,” scraping out both tuned and quarter-toned figures against eerie piano (Andrew Russo), also played from the inside with a steel guitar slide among other objects, and high strung percussion (David Cossin). The excitability yields intermittently to meditative stasis, given an authentic flair with Chinese cymbals and broken gongs. Gosfield’s ability to foreground and manipulate pure instrumental sounds emerges even more clearly in “Cranks and Cactus Needles” (2000), inspired by the sounds of the now obsolete 78 RPM records and commissioned by the Stockholm-based ensemble The Pearls Before Swine Experience. Ripping, scratchy timbres in the strings evoke a record player on its last legs, while flute and piano play unaffected. Gosfield herself takes the keyboard for “Phantom Shakedown,” composed specifically for the album in 2010, over cosmic whirring, satellite bleeps, detuned piano, and machine rhythms, the piano’s heavy, if at time monotonous, chords moving through the samples as if drifting through a tunnel.

Some subtleties in the frequencies of the samples may not be as palpable on recording as they are live, yet instrumental balance is generally well-struck throughout the album. The first minutes of the title track are excessively loud at first hearing, but upon grasping the music’s structural strains becomes an absorbing listen. The detoned shades of “Cranks and Cactus Needles” manage to carry through effectively, the keyboard deliberately raucous beneath ripping strings. Roger Kleier’s electric guitar grinds organically with the machine riffs in “Daughters of the Revolution,” while the technical and expressive range of Fan’s cello, featured in four of six tracks, provides visceral continuity throughout the spectrum of Gosfield’s endeavors. David Cossin’s percussion provides a full range of timbral variety and rhythmic energy, fueling this music’s appetite for lyrical noise.

‘Almost Truths and Open Deceptions’ is out Aug.28 on Tzadik Records and can be pre-ordered on

Opus 1

At a time when young musicians are grappling with the demands of audience development and changing business models, the Israeli Chamber Project (ICP) has created a flexible format that combines high quality performance and outreach into a single mission. Founded four seasons ago by young musicians based in New York, Berlin and Tel Aviv—most of whom graduated from Juilliard or the Manhattan School of Music—the octet divides its time between the concert hall and educational tours to rural parts of Israel, some of which are mostly Arab, that have little or no exposure to classical music. “It’s a response to a social-economic situation where there’s a kind of brain drain,” explains pianist Assaff Weisman, who also serves as the group’s executive director. “No one is left to teach there.” In turn, the chamber music society hopes to bring something of its native musical culture abroad, championing emerging Israeli composers and including pre-concert demonstrations. The ensemble, with two pianists, a clarinetist, and a harpist alongside a quartet of string players, can expand or shrink to suit a wide range of repertoire and has won praise for its inventive programming. The group’s debut album Opus 1 features an originally-commissioned quartet by the Berlin-based composer Matan Porat alongside duets, trios and a sextet.

The selection gives equal measure to late French Romaticism and Eastern European modernism, providing a fitting stylistic context for Porat’s Night Horses (2007). Dreamy piano arpeggios and rhapsodic lines in the clarinet over nearly imperceptible slides and tremoli in the strings yield to tangled melodies that deliberately evoke Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, as liner notes by Laurie Shulman explain. The work was originally inspired by an eponymous lecture by Jorge Luis Borges about the ‘nightmare’ as a ‘night horse’ that invades the psyche. The second movement features moaning strings and emphatic interlocking melodies that seem desperate to escape as the piano gallops along until a soft, waking clarinet melody resolves the emotional turmoil. Martinu’s Musique de Chambre No.1, scored for clarinet, harp, piano and string trio, provides the ensemble with another outlet for vibrant, free-ranging yet highly idiomatic musicianship. Folk rhythms emerge spontaneously alongside neo-impressionist elements, while the mysterious timbre and meditative stasis of in the inner Andante movement underscores the music’s unusual instrumentation.

Bartok’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, the only chamber work in which the composer involved a wind player, also features a slow-fast rhapsodic structure with a Pihenö (Relaxation) inner movement. The late Bartokian fare can barely contain its energy in the final movement as both violinist and clarinetist respectively alternate between two instruments, a detuned fiddle adding a searing touch of nostalgia. The album is balanced with the soothing mood of duets according special prominence to the harp. ICP harpist Sivan Magen performs in his own arrangement of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, originally written in the composer’s last years after a spell of paralyzing depression. The harp’s dry, rippling timbre is not so convincing in the accompanying chords of the Prologue or the aggressive plucks that bring the final movement to a close but achieves a more compelling blend in the inner Sérénade. The Fantaisie for Violin and Harp of Saint-Saens, who as the liner notes explain was one of the few pianist-composers to write idiomatically for the harp, demonstrates a more conventional, and ultimately more consistently pleasing, use of texture.

The members of the ICP perform with youthful energy and polished, expressive musicianship throughout the album. Magen reveals his mastery of the instrument in French repertoire and blends skillfully in Martinu’s Chamber Music No.1. Weisman anchors the ensemble sensitively in Porat’s Night Horses, while clarinetist and ICP Artistic Director Tibi Cziger nails the dance motives of the opening Verbunkos movement to Bartok’s Contrasts. The performance of this work stands out for its crisp, lively rhythms and effortless sense of structure. Violinist Itamar Zorman, winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, also impresses in the thorny harmonics of the final movement. Balance problems between the contrasting timbres of the instruments emerge only in the Porat, where subtle violin timbres in the opening do not come through audibly enough. Such are the perils of recording contemporary music, although audio engineering could perhaps artificially address the problem. All considerations aside, ICP’s fresh approach to chamber music breathes life into an art form whose myriad possibilities often go underappreciated in mainstream classical music life.

Opus 1 is already available for download and will be released on Azica Records July 31.