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January 23, 2016

Best 20th c. Violin Concertos

The instrumental concerto emerged as an independent form towards the end of the seventeenth century and soon evolved into a genre in which virtuosity was a significant ingredient. The violin was initially the most important solo instrument, although in the second half of the eighteenth century it was superseded by the piano. The nineteenth century was the age of the virtuoso with empty display leading to the debasement of the genre, although in the hands of serious composers the "symphonic concerto" (sometimes almost a symphony with obbligato violin) also flourished. In the twentieth century, the virtuoso concerto lost in importance and the symphonic concerto grew in complexity.

As you will see below (and in my other posts about classical music) I believe that 20th c. musical history is broader than only atonality or the twelve-tone technique. What counts is whether a given work is convincing as a statement in his own language by the composer. So below you'll find Schoenberg and Ligeti brotherly side by side with Barber and Walton... And why not - this is all beautiful music.


1. Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 33 (1911)
Carl Nielsen wrote concertos for flute, clarinet and violin. That last concerto dates from around the time of his Third Symphony and is a bridge to the composer's leaner style and also to the 20th c. concerto in general. It has an unusual shape, being in two movements which both start with extensive slow introductions. While the first movement with its violin cadenza full of pyrotechnics and expansive sonata movement still reminds listeners of the virtuoso concerto of the 19th century, the second and last movement - a calm prelude followed by a rondo scherzando, built on a capricious staccato tune, renounces everything that might dazzle or impress and therefore sounds utterly modern.
Recording listened to: Cho-Liang Lin with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on CBS Records (with Sibelius concerto). 

2. Frederick Delius, Violin Concerto (1916)
Written in 1916, immediately after the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, but only premiered in 1919 due to the delay by the war. The Violin Concerto shares a continuous flow of lyricism and melodic invention unique in 20th-c. orchestral music with Delius' other concertos, the one for cello and the double concerto. It is a rhapsodic work in one movement, a soliloquy for the violin. The whole work springs from several musical cells introduced at the beginning by orchestra and soloist and seems like a wonderful improvisation although it is of course tightly controlled. It is not a bravura piece and even ends pianissimo, which may be the reason for the surprising obscurity of this beautiful music.
Recording listened to: Tasmin Little with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis on Chandos (with cello Concerto and Double Concerto).

3. Karol Szymanowski, Violin Concerto No 1 (1916, premiere 1922)
Again a violin concerto that rejects the 19th c. tradition. The one-movement concerto, which was contemporaneous with Szymanowski's monumental Third Symphony introduces a new musical language full of ecstatic raptures and tension. The euphoric music is based on Noc Majowa ("May Night"), a poem by Tadeusz Miciński: "And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, / burning in amorous conflagration." While the violin sings its lyrical song it is surrounded by a fascinating landscape of ever changing, cascading sound waves. A concerto with a marked Oriental flavor.
Recording listened to: Konstanty Andrzej Kulka with the Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karol Stryja on Naxos (with Second Violin Concerto). 

4. Sergey Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No 1 (1917, premiere 1923)
The First Violin Concerto was written while Prokofiev worked on his Dostoevsky opera, The Gambler, and the Classical Symphony. The premiere of 1917 was overtaken by the October Revolution and was finally given in 1923 in Paris. It is a lyrical work without overtly virtuoso effects, starting with a quietly rapturous opening theme. The second movement is interestingly a sardonic scherzo, with typical Prokofievian motor rhythms and the violin partly playing sul ponticello (near the bridge). The songful finale resumes the mood of the opening movement, finally to return to the dreamy tune from the start of the concerto.
Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi on Chandos (with Second Violin Concerto).

5. Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No 4 Op 36 No 3 "Violin Concerto" (1925)
Hindemith revived the spirit of the Baroque concerto grosso in his set of seven Kammermusiken, using ensembles inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. The fourth Kammermusik is a violin concerto, written for Licco Amar, Hindemith's friend and leader of the Amar Quartett. The accompanying ensemble is heavily weighted towards the wind instruments, especially the brass, plus as set of small drums. While the fast movements are hard-driven, the slow third movement is a "night piece," with an intense mood of troubled meditation. The two finale movements are a march and a piece with a strange, surrealistic moto perpetuo figuration in the solo violin.
Recording listened to: Konstanty Kulka with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly on Decca (complete Kammermusik).

6. Igor Stravinsky, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931)
A masterly example of neoclassicism, not a superficial stylistic copy, but a wholly new creation as the result of an affectionate approach to models from the past - with the spice of some fine parodic distortion added to the new mix. The four movements have Baroque titles as Toccata and Aria, and at the beginning of each movement the violin plays the same motto-like chord. The music is like a colorful collage, refreshingly serene, avoiding all subjective moods and feelings. It is music completely without a "message" or "idea."
Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Berg concerto)

7. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto "To the Memory of an Angel" (1935)
Berg dedicated his violin concerto to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius, who had been suffering from polio and died at the age of eighteen. They were family friends of Berg who felt like a second father to the girl. It is a twelve-tone concerto meant to gain acceptance for that style of composition, but it also includes tonal elements such as a Carinthian folk song and Bach's chorale Est is Genug. The opening pitches of the Bach chorale form the first four notes of the twelve-tone series on which the whole work is based. The first movement describes the girl in happy circumstances, the second one is about her struggle with death and her transfiguration. The work ends with a vision of the "angel." One of the most impressive of all 20th c. concertos.
Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Stravinsky concerto)

8. Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 36 (1936)
Written in 1936 in the United States, where Schoenberg had moved in 1933 to escape the Nazis, at the same time as the String Quartet No. 4. The Expressionistic concerto is in neoclassical form and in the traditional three movements. It opens with an expansive sonata movement with waltz-like central development section, succeeded in turn by a reflective Andante and a march-like finale. Based on a single twelve-tone row, the concerto is entirely dodecaphonic. The basic row of the concerto is very much in the foreground and helps to gain a better understanding of the music. The concerto is very difficult to play, needing a "six-fingered" hand, but anno 2016 there should be no difficulty anymore in understanding this music. Just undergo it.
Recording listened to: Hillary Hahn with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Deutsche Grammophon (with the Sibelius concerto).

9. Bela Bartók, Violin Concerto No 2 (1938)
Composed by Bartók just after the Second Piano Concerto and while he worked on the chamber piece Contrasts. Bartók initially planned to write a single-movement concerto like a set of variations, but at the request of the dedicatee, the violinist Zoltán Székely, he ended up writing a standard three-movement concerto - with the set of six variations on a Magyar folk theme as the second movement and the third movement being a variation on material from the first. The dramatic music may well reflect the difficult life of the composer in Hungary in 1938 when as a democrat he was the target of various attacks by Fascists. Soon afterwards, he emigrated to the United States.
Recording listened to: Kyung Wha Chung with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti on Decca (with violin concerto op. posth.)

10. Samuel Barber, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14 (1939).
One of the most magically lyric and romantic concertos ever written. In Barber's own words: "The first movement (allegro molto moderato) begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement (andante sostenuto) is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin."
Recording listened to: Elmar Oliveira with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin on EMI (with Symphony No 2 by Hanson).

11. Benjamin Britten, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 15 (1939, rev. 1950)
Written four months after Britten sailed for the United States in 1939, and first performed in New York. The concerto combines virtuosic brilliance with elegiac lyricism, reflecting Britten's growing concern with the escalation of hostilities around the world that year. The three movements are linked by a motto-rhythm (timpani, which also open the concerto in Beethoven-style), which pervades the opening movement and is recalled in the wild second-movement scherzo (a motoric scherzo as in Prokofiev's concerto). The last movement is Britten's first essay in the passacaglia form (later also used in his Second String Quartet), a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The variations include sections of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to a chant-like memory. Britten is in the first place regarded as an opera composer, but happily this wonderful concerto is enjoying a notable revival of interest in recent years.
Recording listened to: Mark Lubotsky with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten on London (wit piano concerto).

12. William Walton, Violin Concerto (1939)
An unashamedly romantic, symphonic concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz, who commissioned it in 1936. There is a kaleidoscopic succession of moods in the first movement: from the dreamy opening and rapture, to the central section’s jazz-inspired inflections. The second movement features a sensual Mediterranean ambiance, as well as an unexpectedly jaunty waltz episode. The third movement is even more lyrical and ends with an exquisite cadenza. The previous decade had already seen the emergence of three large-scale masterpieces by Walton - the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Symphony No. 1 - to which the present Violin Concerto can be added as one of those works on which Walton's reputation securely rests.
Recording listened to: Nigel Kennedy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on EMI Records (with Viola Concerto).

13. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Concerto funebre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939)
In this "funeral concerto" the German composer Hartmann, a sincere anti-Fascist, laments the catastrophe he saw coming, while many contemporaries jumped on the bandwagon of the Nazis that was to drive them to their perdition. The four movement concerto is played without a break and starts and ends with a chorale. The second movement is a lament interrupted by march-like episodes, the Allegro unleashes considerable rhythmic and dynamic forces, with hammering quavers. The final chorale has the character of a slow-moving procession, with a songful melody. The chorales are signs of hope against the background of the desperate situation of intellectuals under the Nazi regime. After the Nazis took full power, Hartmann forbade the performance of his music in Germany.  
Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Zimmermann and Egk).

14. Eduard Tubin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1942)
Eduard Tubin was born in Estonia and studied at the Tartu College of Music, where he attended Heino Eller's composition class. When the Soviets invaded his country in September 1944 Tubin fled to Sweden, subsequently living in Stockholm for the rest of his life. Tubin composed 10 symphonies, an orchestral suite and a sinfonietta, 2 operas, a ballet, chamber music and concertos for solo instruments as the present violin concerto. Despite advocacy of the famous Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, and in contrast to other Baltic composers as Pärt, Tubin remains in obscurity - although he was a masterful symphonist. The first Violin Concerto was written during the war years when Tubin still lived in Tartu and shows the influence of the study the composer undertook in the 1930s of Estonian folk music. After an energetic first movement follows an intimate Andante that is like a painful confession. The final movement has something of a tarantella-like chase.
Recording listened to: Mark Lubotschky with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Suite on Estonian dances etc.).

15. Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor Op 99 (1948)
A truly symphonic concerto in four movements on a grand scale, with a musical plan that looks towards the Tenth Symphony. The brooding and mysterious slow movement is set against a manic scherzo containing the composer's monogram "DSCH." The intense third movement is a reflective passacaglia out of which a long solo cadenza emerges which leads into the vigorous, folk-style finale. Originally written for David Oistrakh, this wonderful concerto had to wait more than seven years before it could be performed, due to the anti-artistic climate of the late Stalin years.
Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Second Violin Concerto).

16. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Concerto for Violin and large orchestra (1950)
A musical commentary on the war and atrocities the composer lived through as a young man in Germany. This is especially clear in the second movement, a long Fantasia that contains an echo of the Apocalypse through quotes of the Dies Irae - after Hiroshima, humans now had the power to destroy the whole planet in their hands. The movement juxtaposes broad, expressive gestures, explosive outbursts and moments of the utmost lyrical intensity.
Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Hartmann and Egk).

14. Frank Martin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1951)
Frank Martin's expressive violin concerto has a mysterious, fairytale-like mood, in part inspired by the Swiss composer's fascination with Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a beautiful lyrical work. The opening orchestral tutti instantly establishes a magical atmosphere, "an amalgam of impressionism, jazz, modal harmony, and a touch of twelve-tone technique." This movement, Allegro tranquillo, leads to a brilliant orchestral climax after which the unaccompanied violin plays a soliloquy. The Andante molto moderato is songful, but with much darker tonal colors. At the end the soloist floats serenely aloft. The concluding Presto is an exuberant display of high-tensioned energy, swept on by a hard-driven soloist.
Recording listened to: Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Orchester Symphonique de la Radio Luxembourg conducted by Frank Martin on Jecklin (with piano concerto).

15. Mieczysław Weinberg, Violin Concerto in G Minor Op 67 (1960)
A massive work in which the soloist plays almost non-stop, more like an orchestral work with obbligato violin. The opening Allegro with its rhythmically obsessive theme is in sonata form. The second theme has a refined accompaniment from celesta and harp. The Allegretto is the only movement where the soloist is initially silent. The Adagio has a dreamy melodiousness and the Allegro risoluto has the character of a dance. It ends by quoting from the first movement and then sinks away in pianissimo. A little-known, but fabulous concerto.
Recording listened to: Leonid Kogan with Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin on Olympia (with Fourth Symphony).

16. Alfred Schnittke, Violin Concerto No 3 for violin and chamber orchestra(1978)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) challenged audiences with his music, which ranges in influences from Russian Orthodox church music to uncompromising atonality. The Third Violin Concerto starts with a cadenza by the soloist. In the first and second movements Schnittke only uses the thirteen wind instruments of the chamber orchestra; the strings only start playing in the third movement and then gradually replace the wind instruments. There are different influences at work in the concerto: Russian Orthodox church music in the closing chorale of the first and third movements and German Romanticism in the forest music at the start of the third, music which directly quotes Schubert and Mahler. There is also the atonal idiom of the chromatic intervals that sometimes produce twelve-note themes but never twelve-note rows. The interaction between these musical worlds is not subjected to any structural principle - Schnittke just follows his ear. He has, he says, been long interested in the interplay between tonality and atonality. The three movements of the concerto (slow-fast-slow) are played without a break.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Chamber Orchetra of Europe on Teldec (complete violin concertos).

17. Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1980)
This concerto was dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who in touring with it around the world brought the Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina first to international attention. The title has a double meaning. In the first place the concerto is based on the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering, BWV 1079), via the "Klangfarbenmelodie" orchestration of the six-part ricercar of that work by Anton Webern. The introduction presents the theme almost whole, after which the soloist deconstructs it, taking away note after note from it. At the end of the concerto, the theme is again reconstructed resulting in a complete statement by the violin at the very end. The second meaning of the title is a religious one: a reference to the section of the Mass when the priest offers up bread and wine as a symbol for the sacrifice of Christ during the Crucifixion, the Christian symbolism "death" and "resurrection" which is also mirrored in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer. The final section of the concerto consists of a slow string chorale that resembles a Russian Orthodox hymn.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit on Deutsche Grammophon (with Hommage to T.S. Eliot).

18. Henri Dutilleux, L'Arbre des songes, concerto for violin and orchestra (1985)
This violin concerto was written for Issac Stern and based by Dutilleux on the idea of continuous growth and renewal, symbolized by the "tree of dreams" mentioned in the title. There are four movements linked by three interludes, all played without a break. "All in all the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of 'L'arbre des songes' as the title of the piece." But it is important to realize that Dutilleux never literally restates his themes - there always is a difference defined by the intervening transformations. The transformations themselves are such that it is difficult to hear the initial theme in them - like hearing a set of variations without first having heard the initial statement of the theme. One of Dutilleux's greatest works, on a par with the Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain..." and the string quartet "Ainsi la nuit."
Recording listened to: Isaac Stern with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on CBS (with violin concerto by Maxwell Davies).

19. Philip Glass, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No 1 (1987)
In 1987, Philip Glass turned from electronic music to symphonic music in a more traditional and lyrical style. The first fruit of this new style was the Violin Concerto No 1, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for soloist Paul Zukofsky. It quickly became one of Glass' most popular works, not surprisingly, as it is really vintage Glass, reminding one of such works as the Dance Pieces. It is in conventional three-movement format. Both the first and last movements have a strong dance-like feel. In both a theatrical and personal way, the violin strews it fast arpeggios upon the pulsing background chords, or soars over them with arching, cantabile lines. The success of the concerto inspired Glass to branch out into more orchestral works.
Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Adams).

20. György Ligeti, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1992)
György Ligeti has been called one of the most important avant-garde composers of the latter half of the 20th c. Born in Romania in 1923, he lived in Hungary before emigrating to Austria in 1956, where he became a naturalized citizen. In 1973 he became professor of composition at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater until his retirement in 1989. He died in Vienna in 2006. Ligeti uses both polyrhythm and micropolyphony (a similar technique to polyphony but with the polyphony hidden under a dense and rich stack of pitches). This leads to slowly evolving, static music. Ligeti completed his Violin Concerto in 1993 after four years of work. Like the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto uses the wide range of techniques he had developed up until that point. Among other techniques, it uses "microtonality, rapidly changing textures, comic juxtapositions... Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to Medieval and Renaissance music and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery."
Recording listened to: Saschko Gawriloff with Ensemble InterContemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon (with cello and piano concertos).

21. John Adams, Violin Concerto No 1 (1993)
The violin concerto was commissioned as both a concert work and music for the dance stage, so that the underlying grid of rhythmic equality is never obscured. As John Adams has stated: "Formally, the concerto embraces a long, rhapsodic first movement, a slow, stately chaconne and a driving, extroverted toccata. The solo voice is almost never ending, the orchestra remaining either behind it or below it..." In other words, there is no contest between soloist and orchestra, to which also the title of the second movement refers, "Body through which the dream flows:" "the orchestra as the organized, delicately articulated mass of blood, tissues and bones; the violin as the dream that flows through it."
Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Glass).


[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Posts about classical music include:

    January 3, 2016

    Best String Quartets, Part 5 (Postwar period)

    The last installment of Best String Quartets, containing music from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s.

    1. Dmitri Shostakovitch, String Quartet No 3 in F Op 73 (1946)
    Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975) wrote 15 symphonies and also 15 string quartets. His series of quartets has been compared in importance to that by Beethoven and together with the six quartets by Bartók it forms the most important series written in the 20th c. The numeral balance between symphonies and quartets is somewhat misleading, by the way, for it was not until the Fifth Symphony (1937) that the First Quartet appeared. The 13th quartet appeared just before the last symphony, in 1970, after which two more quartets would follow in 1973 and 1974 - the last one sublime but so bleak and death-haunted that it is difficult to listen to it (in contrast to the 15th symphony, where the darkness is at least somewhat lighted up by a sort of surrealist carnival). I have therefore selected the characteristic Third Quartet which is one of the finest in the whole cycle. It consists of natural and fluent music, "vintage Shostakovitch." The quartet is in five movements. The opening sonata-form Allegretto is bright and playful - featuring an innocent theme of Mozartian grace, like in the First Quartet. In the Moderato con moto we hear harsh repetitions and ostinatos, as if the pastoral world of the first movement is now under threat. That threat takes shape in the centrally placed Allegro non troppo, a grotesque and hard-driven march-cum-scherzo, typical ferocious Shostakovitchian music we also find in similar movements in the 10th and 11th symphonies. This is followed by an Adagio, which is in fact a passacaglia of great expressive power (it reminded me of the great passacaglia in Shostakovitch's First Violin Concerto), mixed with a funeral march (to lament the militaristic onslaught that has taken place in the previous movement?). The theme of the passacaglia is recalled in the mocking finale (Moderato), where it is played fortissimo at the climax, before the music fades away.
    [Also see this interesting Introduction to the 15 quartets of Shostakovitch]
    Recording listened to: Borodin String Quartet on EMI (with Second Quartet). 


    2. Nikolay Myaskovsky, String Quartet No 12 in G Major Op 77 (1947)
    The Russian composer Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950) studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Here he also met Sergei Prokofiev with whom he became firm friends, despite the age difference. After graduation, Myaskovsky taught in Saint Petersburg, and from 1921 at the Moscow Conservatory, a position he retained until his death. Among his many pupils were Aram Khachaturian, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Rodion Shchedrin, and Boris Tchaikovsky. Myaskovsky was a prolific composer of symphonic and chamber music - he wrote 13 string quartets, between 1930 and 1950 (besides composing the stunning number of 27 symphonies between 1908 and 1949). The Twelfth Quartet was composed in 1947 and dedicated to Myaskovky's pupil Kabalevsky. It is in four movements. It opens with a rather desolate introduction, after which follows a luminous and flowing Allegro moderato, characterized by a soulful lyricism. The Allegro fantastico has energetic pizzicati and quixotic rhythms. The Trio is atmospherically lugubrious. The Andante con espressione is filled with chromaticisms, long melodic lines and muted strings. There are strong hints of the folkloric in the breezily confident Finale (Allegro non troppo). An admirable quartet, arguably Miaskovsky's best (other contenders are the Tenth Quartet, and some of the earlier ones, as Nos 2 & 3).
    [Also see Nikolai Miaskovsky - A Survey of the Chamber Works, Orchestral Music and Concertos on Record]
    Recording listened to: The Taneyev Quartet on Northern Flower (with Quartet No 13). 



    3. Grażyna Bacewicz, String Quartet No 3 (1947)
    The Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) was born in Łódź. Her father was Lithuanian. She studied at the Warsaw Conservatory and after graduation continued her studies in Paris, among others with Nadia Boulanger. She worked as principal violinist of the Polish Radio Orchestra and after WWII took up the position of professor at the State Conservatoire of Music in Łódź. The violin figures prominently in her compositions - she wrote seven violin concertos and eight violin sonatas (of which three for solo violin). She also wrote seven string quartets and four numbered symphonies. Bacewicz is one of Poland's most remarkable composers, whose works all show a joy in string-instrument sonorities. The Third Quartet was composed while Bacewicz was on a concert tour in Paris just after the war. It is marked by a neoclassicist style, but also by folk music and dance rhythms. The quartet brings not only Bartók to mind, but also Tippett (both composers introduced in Best String Quartets, Part Four). There are three movements. The opening movement is a subtly wrought sonata-allegro structure. The central slow movement is a graceful creation, with elegant melodic phrases. The rondo-finale is in high spirits, full of wit and invention, as if transported from the 18th c. In general this is carefree and optimistic music, but certainly not without depth and weight. The Fourth Quartet from 1951, by the way, is generally regarded as Bacewicz' best and it helped her also get international attention, but I have a personal preference for the brightness of her Third Quartet.
    Recording listened to: Lutoslawski Quartet on Naxos (Complete string quartets on 2 CDs). 


    4. Darius Milhaud, String Quartet No 16 Op 303 (1950)
    Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was one of the most prolific French composers of the 20th c. His modernist compositions are influenced by jazz and make use of polytonality. Milhaud was born in Marseille and studied at the Paris Conservatoire where he met Honegger and Tailleferre with whom (and others) he would later form The Group of Six. Milhaud wrote operas, ballets, symphonies, stage works, film scores and also chamber music. Between 1912 and 1958, he wrote 18 string quartets (consciously one more than Beethoven). Some of these quartets are like a personal diary, others seem to be used for musical experiments. The Sixteenth Quartet belongs in the first category, as it was dedicated to Milhaud's wife Madeleine on their 25th wedding anniversary. The first movement (Tendre) is played entirely with mutes and weaves a leisurely contrapuntal discourse. Except for one passionate outburst, this is quiet music. The second movement (Vif) opens with a lively theme. In the third movement (Doux et calme) the players put the mutes back on for warmly lyrical music. The finale (Anime) is in contrast a joyously boisterous movement. In all, this is calm and tender music, exuding a pleasant human warmth, a great tribute by the composer to his wife.
    Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii on Auvidis Valois (with quartets 2, 7 & 13).

    5. Edmund Rubbra, String Quartet No 2 in E Flat Op 73 (1951)
    The British composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) could be called a "composer's composer" (after the analogy with a "writer's writer"): a composer who is admired, appreciated and respected by fellow musicians, but who is not very popular with the general public, because his complex works are not easily approachable, or because he writes more from the intellect than the heart. Rubbra studied at the Royal College of Music and early in life earned his living by giving piano recitals or playing the piano for a touring theater group. After WWII, he became lecturer at the new faculty of music at Oxford University. As a composer, Rubbra devised his own distinctive style, discarding the at that time fashionable twelve-tone music, although he was certainly a modernist. His style is melody-based and therefore has a vocal feel; he works from a single melodic idea and then lets the music grow from that, without applying any formal rules. Rubbra is known for his eleven symphonies, for large-scale choral works (his Missa Sancti Dominici from 1948) and his chamber music, which shows a great variety. Between 1933 and 1977 he also wrote four string quartets. The Second String Quartet from 1951 is in four movements. The first and last movements are built along similar lines: they have reflective openings leading to vigorous dance-like music. The second movement is a scherzo called "polimetrico," with the four instruments playing independent rhythms - but it doesn't sound "difficult" at all. The third movement is a Cavatine, rarefied mystical music with a strong abnegation of ornament and therefore of almost monastic severity. This is a brilliantly written and deeply felt quartet, but also essentially reserved music, which repays repeated listening.
    Recording listened to: Maggini Quartet on Naxos (with Piano Trio etc.).



    6. Elliott Carter, String Quartet No 1 (1951)
    The American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was a formidable figure in the musical world of his country. His life spanned more than a century and he remained very active as a composer into his most advanced years. Carter studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1930s. After his return to the United States, he held various prestigious teaching posts throughout his life, at Yale, Columbia, Cornell and the Juilliard School. Carter was a Modernist, whose style - after an early neoclassical phase - emphasized atonality and rhythmic complexity. He is one of the most important 20th c. American composers. Carter wrote in all five string quartets. The First Quartet was composed while the New Yorker Carter stayed in the Arizona desert. The impressive quartet was Carter's major breakthrough as a composer, a mature work in which he brought all his advanced techniques together. It is a long and complex piece, uncompromising in its gritty harmonic language, but if you keep Bartok in mind, you'll probably find your way through it. Although there are four movements (Fantasia, Allegro scorrevole (a sort of scherzo), Adagio, Variations), these are played without pause; the two pauses in the work occur within movements, the first in the middle of the Allegro scorrevole, the second one soon after the beginning of the Variations. The quartet starts with a solo cello recitative, which is completed by the solo violin at the very end of the work, like two bookends. Carter said that this was suggested by Jean Cocteau's film Le Sang d'un poète, in which the entire dreamlike action is framed by an interrupted slow-motion shot of a tall brick chimney being dynamited and collapsing - the collapse occurring at the very end of the film. An important technique used by Carter in this quartet is "metric modulation" (you can also hear this in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments of 1920, but Carter uses it in much more complex way): the music continuously changes meters by superposing one rhythmic pattern on another; that new pattern then supersedes the previous one and itself becomes the basic meter. Carter uses this technique instead of traditional tonal modulation. Thus this quartet presents a continuous unfolding and changing of expressive characters, the one woven into the other or emerging from it, as Carter said, "like the desert horizons I saw daily while it was being written."
    Recording listened to: The Arditti String Quartet on Etcetera (with the Fourth Quartet). 


    7. Heitor Villa-Lobos, String Quartet No 15 (1954)
    Brazil's best known composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-59) is widely regarded as one of the most important 20th c. musicians of the Americas. He studied at the conservatory in Rio de Janeiro. Like Bartok in Hungary and Vaughan Williams in England, Villa Lobos explored the music of Brasil's indigenous cultures, from Portuguese, African and American Indian elements to the music of popular street bands. In 1917, he met both Diaghilev and Milhaud who came to Brasil, and was introduced to the music of Debussy and Stravinsky. In the 1920s, he stayed twice for prolonged periods in Paris, taking in the latest trends, and reaching a synthesis in his work between Brazilian and European elements. Besides his large-scale works, such as his many Choros and Bachianas Brasileiras, his symphonies and concertos, Villa-Lobos also wrote a considerable amount of chamber music, among which 17 string quartets. Villa-Lobos claimed to have learned quartet technique from studying the quartets of Haydn. The Fifteenth Quartet was composed in 1954. It is know as the "Harmonics" Quartet owing to the timbral effects at the beginning and end of the slow movement. The quartet is tonal and bright in tone. The first movement has a ternary structure with a dance-like coda appended. The slow movement mainly is serious in tone, with a central section suggestive of a modinha (a Portuguese song). The Scherzo displays youthful vitality, but the finale, which starts with the cello announcing the main theme, is unexpectedly slow and serious. This is complex music - for Villa Lobos in a more popular and folkloristic vein (as most people know him), listen to his Fifth Quartet.
    Recording listened to: Danubius Quartet on Marco Polo (with quartets  3 & 10).



    8. Mieczysław Weinberg (Moishe Vainberg), String Quartet No 10 Op 85 (1964)
    Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Russian composer of Polish-Jewish origin. In 1939, he fled for the Nazis (who murdered most of his family) to the Soviet Union, where he started his career in music with the help of Shostakovitch (who also had an obvious influence on the younger composer). The two composers remained friends and lived near to each other in Moscow, which facilitated the exchange of ideas. Weinberg left a huge body of work: 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 8 violin sonatas, 6 cello sonatas, 6 piano sonatas, film music and 7 operas, of which The Passenger has in recent years sparked a revival. Weinberg is sometimes ranked as the third great Soviet composer, after Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. Weinberg's seventeen quartets, like those of Shostakovitch to which they bear comparison in terms of quality and quantity, are personal works. Both friends carried on a sort of "competition" in quartet writing, spurring each other on. Weinberg's Tenth Quartet was written in 1964 and dedicated to the composer's future second wife, Olga Rakhalskaya - not coincidentally, a little earlier that same year, Shostakovitch had dedicated his Ninth Quartet to his wife Irina, and after seeing Weinberg's Tenth Quartet, would soon start work on his own tenth quartet. The present quartet is in four movements, but they are played without a break. The work starts surprisingly with an elegiac Adagio. When this dies away, the brilliant and virtuosic Scherzo suddenly arises. In the third movement, again an Adagio, material from the first movement is taken up and further developed. After a cello passage functioning as a bridge, comes the final Allegretto, which is like a charming waltz - but the last six bars return us to the questioning beginning of the quartet, completing the arch.
    Recording listened to: Gothenburg Quartet on Olympia (with quartets 1 & 17). 



    9. Alberto Ginastera, String Quartet No 2 Op 26 (1958, revised 1968)
    The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was born in Buenos Aires to a Catalan father and Italian mother. He studied at the conservatory of his hometown and just after the world also with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He has several teaching posts but in 1968 left Argentina for the U.S. and later Switzerland. With for example Villa Lobos in Brazil and Chavez and Revueltas in Mexico, Ginastera is one of the most important 20th c. composers of the Americas. His music, which contains work in all genres except the traditional symphony, is usually divided into three periods: "Objective Nationalism" (1934-1948), "Subjective Nationalism" (1948-1958), and "Neo-Expressionism" (1958-1983). In the first period he used Argentine folk themes in a straightforward fashion, while in the second period those borrowings became more abstract. In the third period he started using serial composition, microtones, indeterminacy, and polytonality. The Second Quartet stands at the beginning of that third period and is Ginastera's first work in twelve-tone style - in the expressive way of Alban Berg (with an admixture of Bartok). There are five movements. An Allegro rustico and a Furioso make up the two outer movements, and a further fast movement, a Presto magico (a strangely disquieting night scene), stands in third place at the center of the quartet, in turn framed by two slow movements, the Adagio angoscioso and the Libero e rapsodico. This is again a masterly quartet written in response to a commission from the renowned Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation.
    Recording listened to: Henschel Quartet on Arte Nova (with Quartet no 1)



    10. Aulis Sallinen, String Quartet No. 3 Op 19 "Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March" (1969)
    Aulis Sallinen (1935) is a contemporary Finnish composer, who has written 6 operas, 8 symphonies, various concertos and chamber music - in that last category are also various works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. He studied at the Sibelius Academy, served as administrator of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and later in life was made a Professor of Arts by the Finnish Government, so that he could concentrate on composing full-time. While Sallinen's lyric writing shows a strong influence from his great predecessor Sibelius, there is also a certain harsh and satiric touch in his music that is reminiscent of Prokofiev, Shostakovitch and Weill. In the early sixties, he was influenced by serialism, but as his Third Quartet from 1969 shows, by the end of the decade was already moving away from it. The Third String Quartet was composed for an unpretentious reason: to be used at school concerts. The composer decided to use an immediately recognizable, traditional Finnish fiddle tune, "Peltoniemi Hintrik's Funeral March," as the basis for a set of variations. The quartet is in fact a work of continuous variation in which the theme never disappears, ever present like a distant horizon. The opening of the quartet is deceptively simple: first violin and cello play the mournful melody two octaves apart, but slightly differently, giving the suggestion that what we hear is the echo of a march played in the distance. The instrumental techniques are quite varied, ranging from thrumming pizzicato chords to ghostly harmonics.
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Glass, Nancarrow, Sculthorpe and others).  



    11. Peter Sculthorpe, String Quartet No 8 (1969)
    The Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) studied at the conservatory in Melbourne and later also with Egon Wellesz (see Best String Quartets, Part Three) in Oxford. For most of his life, he was professor at the University of Sydney. Sculthorpe wrote two operas, orchestral and chamber music, including 18 string quartets. He avoided atonal techniques, but instead studied non-Western music. His work is therefore often characterized by unusual timbral effects and a distinctive use of percussion. This is also clear in the Eight String Quartet from 1969. When writing this quartet, Sculthorpe was influenced by two Balinese idioms, ketungan, the rhythmic rice pounding music of Bali (used in the two fast movements), as well as by arja, a kind of Balinese song play (used in the three slow movements, and played con dolore). The first and last movements are almost entirely for solo cello. Like the third movement, they create a feeling of improvisation and are like timeless and placeless chants, deeply sad. The second and fourth movements, based on the ketungan, have strict meters which are more characteristically Indonesian. One can even hear the hubbub of village life in their dance-like plucks and swings.
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Glass, Nancarrow, Sallinen and others).  

    12. Ben Johnston, String Quartet No 4 "Amazing Grace" (1973)
    The contemporary composer Ben Johnston (1926) is known for his use of "just intonation," making him one of the foremost practitioners of micro-tonal music. Just or pure intonation is "any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers," as Wikipedia states. It is a contrasting system from equal temperament, which dominates Western instruments of fixed pitch such as piano or organ. Johnston taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois from 1951 to 1986 before retiring to North Carolina. He was in frequent contact with such "avant-garde" figures as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis. Like Sallinen (No 12 above) and others, he was in his early music influenced by post-Webern serialism, but later moved to a more tonal style, as is clear from his Fourth String Quartet. The eleven minute quartet is as the name says a set of variations on the hymn "Amazing Grace," traversing different tunings, all in just intonation. The rhythmic language is of great complexity. This quartet was commissioned by the Fine Arts Music Foundation of Chicago. It has been recorded several times, making it one of Johnston's most popular compositions.
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with music by Volans, Ives, Bartok and others under the title "White Man Sleeps"). 

    13. Henri Dutilleux, "Ainsi la nuit" for string quartet (1976)
    The French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) developed his own idiosyncratic style, influenced neither by Messiaen nor by Boulez (but rather extending the legacies of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky). Although he incorporated some serial techniques, he felt ambiguous about serialism in general, especially its dogmatism. Dutilleux studied before WWII at the Paris Conservatoire and also won the Prix de Rome (without being able to go to Rome because of the outbreak of the war). After the war, he worked as Head of Music Production for Radio France and later as Professor of Composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He was composer in residence at Tanglewood in 1995 and 1998. Dutilleux wrote slowly, but all his works are perfect masterpieces, such as his Piano Sonata, the two symphonies, the Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain" (see my post Best Cello Concertos), the Violin Concerto "L'arbre des songes," and the present String Quartet "Ainsi la nuit," or "Thus the night." As the title implies, its atmosphere is nocturnal, like the progression of a dream. The rhythmically very complex score contains a broad range of string effects and differing colors. Dutilleux prepared himself by studying the Six Bagatelles by Webern and the Lyric Suite by Berg (see Best String Quartets, Part Four). There are seven interrelated movements played without a break: "Nocturne"-"Miroir d'espace"-"Litanies"-"Litanies II"-"Constellations"-"Nocturne II"-"Temps suspendu." Several techniques that are characteristic for Dutilleux are displayed in the quartet: "fan-shaped" writing (i.e. the voices of the four stringed instruments mirroring each other), the outlining of a tonal triad in a seemingly atonal work (a D Major triad: the pitch of D in the introduction, F Sharp in "Litanies II" and A in "Constellation," the climax of the work) , and a similarity of some melodies to the modality of the Gregorian chant (in "Nocturne I" and the opening of "Litanies II"). Ainsi la nuit also displays "progressive growth," a technique through which musical motifs can both recall music that was heard before or hint at music that will be played in later movements. This quartet is definitely one of the ultimate masterpieces of the 20th c. string quartet repertory.
    [Guardian article about Dutilleux]
    Recording listened to: Schoenberg Quartet on Koch Schwann (with chamber music by Debussy and Chausson).

    14. Toru Takemitsu, A Way A Lone for string quartet (1981)
    Tokyo-born Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was the first contemporary Japanese composer to make an impression in the West. Largely self-taught, he devised a style of his own, although there are elements of the Second Viennese School, Debussy, Messiaen and Cage. An interesting difference with Western music is that where all classical Western music is grounded in a bass, Takemitsu's music seems to float freely in the air. Toru Takemitsu was largely self-taught in music. In 1957 he attracted international attention with his Requiem for String Orchestra, which earned praise from Stravinsky, then on a visit to Japan. His major works include orchestral music like The Dorian Horizon (1966), and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977); concertos like Arc Part I for piano and orchestra (1963; as well as Part II from the next year), November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra (1967) and the viola concerto A String Around Autumn (1989; see my post Best Works for Viola); as well as many chamber works and music for solo piano and guitar. Takemitsu was also an important composer of film music, he scored hundreds of films, such as Harakiri by Kobayashi, The Woman in the Dunes by Teshigahara and Ran by Kurosawa. Takemitsu's shimmering sound world has an ephemeral quality and is usually capped by poetic titles. He liked to compare composing and listening to music to walking through a classical Japanese garden. The present quartet was commissioned by the Tokyo Quartet in 1981. The title comes from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, where the closing line of the long and abstruse novel reads: "The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the" (which unfinished sentence then links up with the first sentence of the novel like a snake biting its own tail). One could say that Takemitsu's quartet, which is just under 10 minutes, swirls along like the stream of words in Joyce which has become just a series of sonic objects. With its dizzying textures and coloristic effects, the rhapsodic music flows along naturally, like a surreal conversation. This is music of luminous beauty from Japan's most important 20th century composer.
    Recording listened to: Tokyo String Quartet on RCA Victor (with quartets by Britten & Barber).

    15. Alfred Schnittke, String Quartet No 3 (1983)
    The Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) underwent the influence of Shostakovitch, before developing a polystylistic technique in works such as the epic Symphony No 1 (1969-1972) and his first Concerto grosso (1977). He studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where he also worked as a teacher until the early 1970s. After that, he mostly earned his money by writing film scores (more than 70 in 30 years time). Despite almost constant illness, Schnittke produced a large amount of music in all genres, including 10 symphonies, 4 violin concertos, 3 viola concertos, 2 cello concertos and 5 piano concertos, a Requiem and a very large amount of chamber music. Schnittke wrote his Third Quartet (of a total of four) in 1983 when his music began to become more widely known abroad, thanks in part to the work of émigré Soviet artists. The quartet, in three movements played without break (Andante-Agitato-Pesante), is a polystylistic work that uses various musical quotations, a sort of trademark of Schnittke's mature style. In the first movement we hear a cadential sequence from a Stabat Mater by Orlando di Lasso, the theme of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op 133, and the personal musical monogram of Dmitri Shostakovich, "DSCH." These three elements are not used as cheap pastiche or montage, but in fact form the organic basis for the whole quartet. Like a sort of punctuation mark, the opening cadence by Orlando di Lasso will return in its original form at important points in the work. As the quartet progresses, the musical material is pulled away from its original source. In the second movement it is turned into a complex and violent waltz-scherzo. The process is completed in the finale where the musical elements have been developed into the modern and original musical language of Alfred Schnittke himself. It all ends with the Shostakovich tetrachord in quiet pizzicato.
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with quartet music by Webern, Riley, Zorn, Barber, etc.).

    16. Terry Riley, Cadenza on the Night Plain (1984)
    Terry Riley (1935) is one of the pioneers of the minimalist school of Western classical music, whose work was influenced by both jazz and Indian classical music. Riley studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and University of California, Berkeley. Riley made numerous trips to India (one of his teachers in the U.S. was Indian) and also to Europe, soaking up new developments in music. He later joined Mills College to teach Indian classical music. Riley's music is usually based on improvisations through a series of modal figures of different lengths. A good example is his In C (1964). Riley began his long-lasting association with the Kronos Quartet when he met founder David Harrington at Mills. In all, Riley has composed 13 string quartets for the ensemble. Besides Cadenza on the Night Plain, their first album length cooperation from 1984, that are for example Salome Dances for Peace (1989) and Sun Rings (2002). The present quartet is grand in scope, it combines the repeated figuration of minimalism with Riley's Indian trained ability to develop a piece over an extended time period. It is dramatic, folksy and spiritual at the same time. It contains cadenzas for each individual player. There are thirteen separate sections in the 37-minute work, some with whimsical or humorous titles such as "March of the Old Timers Reefer Division." Riley's interest in spirituality is evident in sections such as "Tuning to Rolling Thunder," inspired by the ideas of Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder. In contrast, "Where Was Wisdom When We Went West?" recalls the unenlightened pattern of Western migration. This is beautiful, transcendent music, but with its feet solidly planted on the earth.
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (the album contains 3 other pieces for string quartet by Riley: Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, G-Song and Mythic Birds Waltz). 


    17. Philip Glass, String Quartet No 3 "Mishima" (1985)
    Philip Glass (1937) is perhaps the most popular composer among America's minimalists. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music and also in the mid-1960s with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He came to minimal music after meeting Steve Reich after his return to New York. For the performance of his early minimal music, he founded the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing himself on keyboard). Later he also composed music for more traditional combinations. The prolific Glass has written operas, ten symphonies, eleven concertos, solo works, chamber music and film scores. He has written seven string quartets plus several other works for string quartet, such as his music for the 1931 classical Dracula film. The music of the Third Quartet was also originally written for a film: Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters from 1985. This film, framed by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima's highly theatrical suicide in 1970, is a biography of the controversial Japanese writer with interspersed dramatizations of some of his novels (see my Japan Navigator post about Mishima, the novel The Golden Pavilion, and his suicide). In fact, Glass wrote three types of music for this film: a large symphony orchestra plays the music for the sections about Mishima's novels, a string orchestra plus percussion the music for the day when Mishima committed suicide, and a string quartet plays the music for the biographical sections about Mishima's life and the people in it (in the film these sections are black and white flashbacks). The string quartet thus aptly reflects the most personal aspects in the film. There are allusions to Mishima's grandmother (whose romantic tales influenced his later thinking), his body building and his extremist right-wing advocacy. Glass has stated that he conceived the string quartet sections as independent music, that could stand alone as a separate string quartet. The six movements are "1957 Award Montage," "November 25 Ichigaya" [the date and place of Mishima's suicide], "1954-Grandmother and Kimitake" [Kimitake is the childhood name of Mishima], "1962-Body building," "Blood Oath" [obviously referring to Mishima's extremist activities], and "Mishima/Closing." The music in this quartet is "vintage Glass," stirring and mesmerizing.
    [Official Philip Glass website]
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with quartets 2, 4 & 5).

    18. Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988)
    Steve Reich (1936) is with Philip Glass one of the pioneers of minimal music, with such signature works as Drumming (1970/1971) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974/76). But his absolute masterpiece is Different Trains, a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape written in 1988. As background serves the biographical story that at the time of WWII, Reich made frequent train journeys between New York and Los Angeles to visit his parents, who had separated. Years later, he realized that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the United States, he might have been forced by the Nazis to travel in a train to a death camp. The work is scored for string quartet and digitally sampled voices. Using recorded speech as a source for melodies (which are then picked up by the instruments, playing along with the recorded voices) was a new experiment for Reich (although it had of course been done by Stockhausen in Gesang der Jünglinge from 1956, coupled with electronic music). The quartet also contains recordings of train sounds, as well as of sirens and warning bells, and prerecorded lines by the string quartet, thus effectively doubling or quadrupling the strings. Different Trains consists of three movements. In the first movement, "America - Before the War," two persons, Reich's governess and a Pullman porter, reminisce about train travel in the U.S. with sounds of train travel in the background. In the second movement, "Europe - During the War," three Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences in Europe during the war, including their being sent by train to concentration camps. Interestingly, the European trains have shrieking whistles, while the American ones are heard in perfect intervals, expressing the difference between war and peace. And in "After the War" the Holocaust survivors talk about the years immediately following WWII; there is a return to the American train sounds from the first movement. The sinister weight of 20th c. history sometimes makes this a difficult quartet to listen to. At the same time, Reich uses his shape-shifting minimalism to dazzling effect, making Different Trains his masterpiece.
    [Official Steve Reich website]
    Recording listened to: The Smith Quartet on Signum Classics.

    19. Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, "Already It Is Dusk," String Quartet No 1 Op 62 (1988)
    The Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) was born in southwest Poland and studied at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice, an institution where he would serve as lecturer and provost himself until the end of the 1970s. Górecki became a leading figure of the Polish avant-garde during the post-Stalin cultural thaw. In the 1950s and 1960s he wrote Webern-influenced serialist works, like his colleagues in Western-Europe, but by the mid-1970s he had changed to a sort of "holy minimalism," as exemplified in his popular Third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. More religious works would follow such as Beatus Vir, Miserere and a Requiem. In that respect he is frequently compared to composers as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, who share Górecki's simplified approach to texture, tonality and melody, in works often reflecting deeply held religious beliefs. And like Pärt and Taverner, Górecki has had enormous commercial success around the world, like no other recent classical composer. The First String Quartet was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The quartet is based on the tenor melody of a four-part church song by the 16th c. Polish Renaissance composer Waclaw z Szamotul (c1524-c1560), which is a prayer for children going to sleep: "Already dusk is falling, night closes in / Let us beseech the Lord for help / To be our guardian / To protect us from wicked devils / Who especially under cover of darkness / Profit from their cunning." In the Molto lento beginning of the one movement quartet, this motet is presented by the viola as cantus firmus in a "retrogade-inverse" canon with highly dissonant counterpoint. Three times it is interrupted by fierce chordal interjections of all players. This is followed by an Allegro deciso section which is a stylization of the wild dance music of the Tatra mountains (see Best String Quartets, Part Four, for the inspiration another Polish composer, Szymanowski, derived from this type of folk music). The brief coda is again based on the polymodal canon of the opening. Górecki himself described this quartet as "a kind of village dance music from the plains heard at night time from far above."
    Recording listened to: Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with Lerchenmusik played by the London Sinfonietta).


    20. John Adams, John's Book of Alleged Dances for String Quartet and recorded prepared piano (1994)
    John Adams (1947) wrote two solid string quartets, in 2008 and 2014, which are both in two movements and take between 30 and 40 minutes to perform. But I opt here for the earlier and more quirky John's Book of Alleged Dances for String Quartet and recorded prepared piano - I love the music of John Adams (such as Short Ride in a Fast MachineShaker Loops, the Violin Concerto and the opera Nixon in China), but just as in the case of colleague-minimalist Philip Glass, I feel he is at his best in smaller and less traditional forms. John's Book is a collection of ten short pieces of dance-like music, to be played by a string quartet, and with six pieces in addition accompanied by a recorded track of prepared piano sounds (the "prepared piano" is an invention of John Cage, a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects on or between the strings, so that it becomes a sort of percussion instrument). The dances can be played in any order or grouping. Adams calls them "alleged" because the dance steps still had to be invented at the time of composing them (these are in other words not traditional dances), but I believe that several choreographers have already put their hand to that. The music is sardonic, exuberant and rowdy, as is also clear from titles as "Alligator Escalator" (a sluggish escalator in a local department store), "Rag the Bone" (a scat-like song), "Dogjam" (a demon fiddle piece, "in twisted hillbilly chromatics"), "Stubble Crotchet" (an "early morning shave with an old razor") and "Pavane: She's So Fine" ("a tender song for a young teenager"). In his CD sleeve notes, Adams has provided highly entertaining notes (as quoted above) to explain these titles.
    [Also see Earbox, John Adams' official website with introductions to his compositions]
    Recording listened to: The Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch (with Gnarly Buttons played by the London Sinfonietta).

    This does not exhaust the topic of the string quartet - there are many more beautiful quartets - but for the time being I rest my case. I will come back to chamber string music at some future time!
    [Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
    Posts about classical music include:

    December 29, 2015

    Bach Cantatas (63): Sunday after Christmas

    Not every year has a Sunday after Christmas. When it occurs, it may fall both before or after the New Year. There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

    Readings for the Sunday after Christmas:
    Galatians 4:1–7, Through Christ we are free from the law
    Luke 2:33–40, Simeon and Anna with Mary in the temple

    References:
    BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

    Cantatas:
    • Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152, 30 December 1714
      Sinfonia
      Aria (bass): Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn
      Recitative (bass): Der Heiland ist gesetzt
      Aria (soprano): Stein, der über alle Schätze
      Recitative (bass): Es ärgre sich die kluge Welt
      Duet (soprano, bass): Wie soll ich dich, Liebster der Seelen, umfassen?

      ("Step upon the path of faith") Dialogue cantata composed in Weimar in 1714. The chamber work features an exotic orchestration, including viola d’amore (an instrument with sympathetically resonating strings), viola da gamba, recorder and oboe d’amore. While playing with the symbolism that God laid "the stone of foundation" and that Jesus is a "stone beyond all gems," the text is an allegorical dialogue between Jesus and the Soul about faith as the Rock of the Ages which never fails, and concludes with a rejection of the world. The cantata starts with an attractive sinfonia which has some resemblance to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Major for organ. The first aria is for the bass as Vox Christi, who invites the Soul to "step upon the path of faith," accompanied by purposeful music. In the ensuing recitative the bass introduces the symbol of the corner stone, which is taken up in the soprano aria, featuring an elegant accompaniment from the recorder and viola d'amore. The final duet (there is no chorale) unites Jesus and the Soul (and the upper instruments in unisono). 

    • Das neugeborne Kindelein, BWV 122, 31 December 1724
      Chorale: Das neugeborne Kindelein
      Aria (bass): O Menschen, die ihr täglich sündigt
      Recitative (soprano): Die Engel, welche sich zuvor
      Aria (soprano, alto, tenor): Ist Gott versöhnt und unser Freund
      Recitative (bass): Dies ist ein Tag, den selbst der Herr gemacht
      Chorale: Es bringt das rechte Jubeljahr

      ("The new-born infant child") Chorale cantata from Bach's second Leipzig year, based on a hymn by Cyriakus Schneegass (1597) which celebrates the newborn Jesus. The opening chorale is rather muted and the long and chromatic bass aria which follows dwells on "men who daily sin." Only accompanied by the continuo, this is the longest movement of the cantata. In the next recitative the chorale melody is played by three recorders, and in the trio for soprano, alto and tenor, it is sung by the alto as cantus firmus. After a bass recittaive which dwells on the joyful message of Christmas, the cantata closes with the usual plain harmonization of the chorale. 

    • Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende, BWV 28, 30 December 1725
      Aria (soprano): Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende
      Chorale: Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren
      Recitative and arioso (bass): So spricht der Herr
      Recitative (tenor): Gott ist ein Quell
      Duet aria (alto and tenor): Gott hat uns im heurigen Jahre gesegnet
      Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen


      ("Praise God! The year now draws to a close") Part of Bach's third Leipzig cycle. The Sunday after Christmas is the last Sunday of the year and the principal topic of this cantata is the passing of the old year and coming of the new year, without referring to the readings for the day. The opening soprano aria exhorts us to recall God's gifts in the previous year and bring thanks. That thanks is then represented by the chorale "Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren," here in rare second position. This movement is in motet style; motets were traditionally part of Christmas music in Germany. The theme of God's generosity is continued in the arioso for bass and the tenor recitative. The duet for alto and tenor then sums up the themes of gratitude. The cantata ends with a straightforward chorale harmonisation.

    (1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

    December 28, 2015

    Bach Cantatas (62): Third day of Christmas

    The Third Day of Christmas (December 27) is in the Lutheran, Anglican and Catholic calendars the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (St. John Day), one of the first disciples and later one of the "pillars" of the Jerusalem church. He is traditionally considered the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and possibly also the Book of Revelation and lived to a high age.

    Readings for the Third Day of Christmas:
    Hebrews 1:1–14, Christ is higher than the angels, or
    Eccles. 15:1-8, Wisdom embraces those that fear the Lord;
    John 1:1–14, Prologue, also called Hymn to the Word, or
    John 21:15-24, Jesus commands Peter to feed his lambs.

    References:
    BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


    Cantatas:
    • Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, BWV 64, 27 December 1723
      Chorus: Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget
      Chorale: Das hat er alles uns getan
      Recitative (alto): Geh, Welt, behalte nur das Deine
      Chorale: Was frag ich nach der Welt
      Aria (soprano): Was die Welt in sich hält
      Recitative (bass): Der Himmel bleibet mir gewiß
      Aria (alto): Von der Welt verlang ich nichts
      Chorale: Gute Nacht, o Wesen


      ("Behold, what a love has the Father shown to us") The text of this cantata (which brings the faithful back to harsh reality after their copious Christmas dinner) does not so much refer to the readings as stress the fact that the believer does not have to be concerned about the "world" any more when loved by God in the way which Christmas shows. The opening chorus is set in fugal motet style; an archaic-sounding choir of trombones doubles the voices. Besides this chorus, the cantata contains three chorales in plain four-part harmonizations, all of them familiar to Bach's Leipzig community. The first one is a hymn of gratitude for what God has done for us. It is followed by an alto recitative, addressing the flimsiness of earthly riches, accompanied by scales in the continuo "rising to heaven." The second chorale questions worldly values and is followed by a soprano aria on the same theme, in the style of a gavotte, in which a virtuoso solo violin represents the "worldly things" which must dissipate like smoke. The bass recitative makes a firm statement about the sureness of heaven, after which the alto aria, accompanied by the oboe d'amore, stresses that the believer "desires nothing from the world" (but the complex rhythm of the aria may convey "the difficulty of staying on the path to heaven"). The cantata closes with the third and final chorale, a setting of the fifth verse of Johann Frank's "Jesu, meine Freude," which says farewell to all things material.

    • Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133, 27 December 1724
      Chorus: Ich freue mich in dir
      Aria (alto): Getrost! es faßt ein heil'ger Leib
      Recitative (tenor): Ein Adam mag sich voller Schrecken
      Aria (soprano): Wie lieblich klingt es in den Ohren
      Recitative (bass): Wohlan, des Todes Furcht und Schmerz
      Chorale: Wohlan, so will ich mich


      ("I rejoice in you") Chorale cantata from the second Leipzig cycle, based on the chorale in four stanzas "Ich freue mich in dir" (1697) by Caspar Ziegler. The text has no reference to the readings nor to the feast of John the Evangelist, but expresses the joy of the individual believer about the descent of God in the form of the child Jesus. The opening chorus is in the form of a chorale prelude with the choir singing the lines of the chorale, interspersed with attractive orchestral interludes and oboe d'amore melismas. The alto aria is again accompanied by oboes d'amore, here used almost like trumpets, singing about the happiness of having seen God face to face. The tenor recitative ends by quoting from the chorale in both words and music "Wird er ein kleines Kind und heißt mein Jesulein." The soprano aria has a fine string accompaniment and a gentle lilt, like a lullaby, and continues expressing joy in the same vein, only more gentle. The cantata is closed by a four-part setting of the last chorale stanza, which could almost have been a Christmas carol.

    • Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, BWV 151, 27 December 1725
      Aria (soprano): Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt
      Recitative (bass): Erfreue dich, mein Herz
      Aria (alto): In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost
      Recitative (tenor): Du teurer Gottessohn
      Chorale: Heut schleußt er wieder auf die Tür


      ("Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes") Miniature cantata without opening chorus from  1725. Bach chose a text by Georg Christian Lehms (1684-1717), who was inspired by the epistle to the Hebrews, "Christ is higher than the angels." The mellifluous opening aria for soprano features the oboe d'amore as well as the flute. It is a gently swaying lullaby expressing joy at the birth of Jesus; the flute part is highly embellished. This is truly angelic music. The bass recitative moves from celebration to a recognition of the lowliness of Jesus' status. The melancholic, chromatic alto aria (finding comfort in Jesus' humbleness) with prominent oboe d'amore expands this idea. In contrast to the bass, the tenor recitative again moves back from humility to celebration. The final movement is a setting of the final stanza of "Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich", a chorale with words and melody by Nikolaus Herman published in 1560.



    • Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen 27 December 1734 (Christmas Oratorio Part III) BWV 248/3
      Chorus "Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen"
      Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren"
      Chorus "Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem"
      Recitative (bass) "Er hat sein Volk getröst't"
      Chorale "Dies hat er alles uns getan"
      Duet (soprano, bass) "Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen"
      Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und sie kamen eilend"
      Aria (alto) "Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder"
      Recitative (alto) "Ja, ja! mein Herz soll es bewahren"
      Chorale "Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren"
      Recitative (Evangelist, tenor) "Und die Hirten kehrten wieder um"
      Chorale "Seid froh, dieweil"
      Chorus "Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen"


      ("Ruler of Heaven, hear our babbling") The third part of the Christmas Oratorio sees the shepherds eventually arriving in Bethlehem. It starts with a fine, glorious chorus, borrowed from BWV 214/9, with trumpets and drums. The first recitative by the Evangelist sets the scene and this is followed by a lively chorus "Let us now go towards Bethlehem." A further recitative is followed by a contemplative chorale and then a gentle duet (taken from BWV 213/11) for soprano and bass accompanied beautifully by a pair of oboe's d'amore. The evangelist continues telling of the shepherds finding the child and spreading the news. The alto then sings "Mary's aria" (the only original aria in the Christmas Oratorio), a gentle reflection on the miracle that has just taken place, accompanied by solo violin. The cantata then draws to a close with the pattern recitative-chorale-recitative-chorale, after which the opening chorus is repeated.

    (1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas