"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 25, 2016

Jean Renoir (Great Auteur Film Directors 1)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.


In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films. 

Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.

Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen - see my post about Best Silent Films), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." 

As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film. 

The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France. 


Here are his best films:
  1. La Chienne (1931)
    "La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
  2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
    An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. See my full review here.
  3. A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
    A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. See my full review here.
  4. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
    A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
  5. Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
    The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
  6. La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
    Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
  7. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
    Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
  8. The River (1951)
    Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
  9. French Cancan (1954)
    A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a  Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent. 
    Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir
    With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection. 
    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
    1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 

    April 20, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (2): Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)

    Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
    Alex Ross begins his survey of twentieth century classical music, The Rest is Noise, with the shock Richard Strauss' Salome caused with its radical harmonies and its violent story of deviant Freudian sexuality - this opera certainly meant the advent of a new age, just like Pelléas et Mélisande had done in France a few years before. The sensationally innovatory score sent ripples all over Europe. It also rekindled interest in Oscar Wilde, on whose French play the opera was based.

    [Salome's Dance by Gustave Moreau]

    The Salome legend itself originates in the gospels of Saint Mathew and Saint Mark. Salome is the daughter of Herodias, who has left her first husband and father of Salome to marry her husband's brother, Herod King of Judea, because he is richer and more powerful. This marriage was considered as unlawful by contemporaries, as Herodias' first husband was still alive; and as she had married her brother-in-law, it was also condemned as incestuous. One man who publicly criticized her was John the Baptist, an ascetic and fierce moralist. He had been arrested and jailed by Herod, but the king was afraid to put him to death as demanded by his wife Herodias, because of John the Baptist's holiness and great popularity.

    On Herod's birthday party, Salome is enticed to dance for her stepfather, after being told that she may ask whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At the instigation of her mother, she then demands the head of John the Baptist as reward.

    [Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, 
    watercolor by Gustave Moreau]

    Since the Renaissance, the Salome legend has inspired numerous painters. An important example close to the time of Strauss is Gustave Moreau, whose painting of Salome's dance is also described in Huysman's decadent novel A Rebours (1884), where the erotic intent of Salome's dance is emphasized. Some years before that, Gustave Flaubert wrote a short story, "Herodias" (1877), the last of his Trois Contes; in this story Herodias uses her daughter as an instrument to obtain the head of John the Baptist and so take revenge on her critic. Salome herself is shown as a more or less innocent young girl, as she even forgets the name of the man whose head she has to request. Jules Massenet's rather tame 1881 opera Hérodiade was based on Flaubert's short story.

    Oscar Wilde wrote his very different, heavily Symbolist play in 1892. He wrote it originally in French, as British law forbade the depiction of Biblical figures on stage; it premiered in Paris in 1896. A new element added by Wilde, was that the sixteen-year old Salome takes a perverse fancy to John the Baptist. She shamelessly eroticizes the body of the ascetic preacher and causes him to be executed when he spurns her affections. In the finale, Salome takes up John's severed head and kisses it - the peak of decadence and necrophilia. Another new motif was that Wilde has Herod - who is already tired of Herodias - lust after Salome, his young stepdaughter and niece. When she dances naked for him, he is willing to give her anything she desires.

    [The Climax, Salome and the head of Jokanaan, 
    by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893]

    Richard Strauss, who after two failed operas in the early nineties, had mainly written large symphonic poems as Also sprach Zarathustra, was inspired by the German translation of Wilde's play by Hedwig Lachmann and decided to set it word for word, only doing some editing and cutting away superfluous passages (as Debussy had done three years previously in Pelléas et Mélisande). He had finally found the right material for a great opera.

    In the first part of the resulting concise 100-minute opera, he concentrates on the confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, called by his Hebrew name "Jokanaan" in the play and opera. Salome could be called "the symbol of unstable sexuality," and Jokanaan the "symbol of ascetic rectitude (but he was also a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the composer Strauss)," as Alex Ross says. Salome is a bored teenager, but she is also very beautiful - Herod is in love with her, as are several others in his court (in an earlier scene, one of the guards even commits suicide out of frustrated love). But, as Strauss insisted, she is also innocent. Salome hears Jokanaan's voice emanating from the cistern in which he has been imprisoned and she is bewitched by it. She has him brought up by the guards and immediately has a crush on him and tries to seduce him, but he shrinks away from her and even utters a curse.

    In the second part we meet the tetrarch Herod, a man caught in his own base sensuality, a hypocrite and a hysteric. He persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, and so she does, to kitschy music. The dance is a striptease, she removes one after another of the seven veils that conceal her body until she stands naked before Herod. She now calls for the prophet's head. Herod tries to make her change her mind, but she refuses. The executioner descends into the cistern prison and returns with Jokanaan's head which he hands her on a silver platter. Salome explodes in necrophiliac bliss (this is after all a love story), dancing with the head and kissing it, while the orchestra blares forth with erotic love music. Herod is so horrified by the spectacle his own incestuous lust has engendered, that he calls on the guards to "Kill that woman!" With a shriek and howl, the curtain falls. The opera ends with eight bars of sheer noise.

    [Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Titian]

    The combination of the erotic and the murderous with a Biblical theme, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance, but although Salome was censured in many countries, it also took the world by storm - within two years after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it was playing in 50 opera houses around the world. Not all performers were comfortable with the role of Salome: some refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils," thus creating a situation where a dancer had to act as "body double." And during the first performance in London, the head of John the Baptist, brought on a silver tray to Salome, was replaced by a (apparently more innocuous) bloody sword. But the twentieth century was underway, and modernity made this opera about extreme sexual obsession not only possible, but also a reflection of the age.  

    Recording watched and listened to: Maria Ewing as Salome, Michael Devlin as Jokanaan, Kenneth Riegel as Herod, Gillian Knight as Herodias; with the ROH Covent Garden conducted by Edward Downes; and with Derek Bailey as stage director; on Kultur Video (DVD). 

    A performance on DVD stands and falls with the singer playing Salome: she must be a dramatic soprano with a strong voice, but also convincingly look like a young woman. That is a difficult combination, but Maria Ewing perfectly fits the bill in this somewhat older recording. With her large luminous eyes, she is a perfect dramatic actress who aptly conveys Salome's journey from curiosity to infatuation and finally total insanity in her amorous pursuit of John the Baptist.  




    April 8, 2016

    Best Contemporary Crime Novels from Europe

    Here is a look at crime fiction from Europe, a genre characterized by atmosphere and character development above plot. Of course, there have been European authors in the past like Agatha Christie who wrote pure plot puzzles, but this was an aberration which only took place in England - after all, such novels are about just as engaging as the average crossword puzzle. The crime novel as a literary phenomenon about character was created in the 1930s in France by Georges Simenon (see my post about this author) - a writer who, as Andre Gide said, should have had the Noble Prize in Literature, and whose influence can still be felt today, for his manner was picked up by many different European authors after WWII. Somewhat older "character" authors are for example P.D. James and Ruth Rendell in England, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in Sweden.

    European crime writers in addition learned how to add atmosphere from Americans as Hammett and Chandler (and write in the noir style), but there are two big differences between both cultures: European crime fiction is generally less violent than its American counterpart, which especially in its contemporary form only seems to focus on psychopaths and serial killers. And while in American crime novels the private eye rules supreme as a "lonely wolf" investigator (typical for American culture), European authors (like Japanese ones, as Matsumoto Seicho) prefer the police procedural - most European sleuths are police inspectors who work within the framework of an organization. 

    So what are the best contemporary crime novels from Europe? Or, in other words, who are the most interesting fictional police inspectors from our time?


    [Ian Rankin (Photo Wikipedia)]

    1. "John Rebus" by Ian Rankin (so far 20 novels, from 1987)
    My mother had a special link with Scotland and when I was a kid, my parents several times took the family on trips to that wild and melancholic country. Nowadays, my interest in Scottish culture has shrunk to the enjoyment of Scottish whisky, especially the single malt peat whiskies of the Scottish Isles, but recently I also had to add the Rebus novels (and the TV series with Ken Stott based on the novels) by Scottish author Ian Rankin to that small list. Ian Rankin (1960), a graduate of Edinburgh University, who spent the time he should have been writing his Ph.D. on English literature producing his first crime novel Knots & Crosses, has written 20 Rebus novels, winning the Gold Dagger in 1997 with Black and Blue. The stories belong to the genre of police procedural detective fiction, with a decided hard-boiled aspect that has led to them being dubbed "Tartan Noir."

    Set in Edinburgh, the novels depict a stark, uncompromising picture of Scotland, characterized by corruption, poverty, and organised crime, a far cry from the holiday country I saw in my youth. Rebus is a misanthrope made cynical by the job he does. He is a maverick cop who drinks, likes to flout authority and ignore the rules. He struggles with his superiors and colleagues and suffers from internal police politics and office politics. He is a lone wolf, a flawed character, but also someone obsessed with his work. He is happiest when he can sit in hus favorite pub with a glass in his hand.

    The inventive plots show a broad spectrum of Scotland, from business districts to dying mining towns, from nightclubs and prisons to some better-known pubs and streets of Edinburgh (these latter based on real places, there is even an Ian Rankin tourist guide to Edinburgh!).

    Another important aspect, that is also present in the work of the other writers discussed here, is the continual linking between the books, so that we follow Rebus through the various ups and downs in his career and personal life. He has a daughter, but is separated from his wife. His immediate boss at work is a woman, Gill Templer, with whom he had a one-time romantic relationship, and his protege is DS Siobhan Clarke.

    The novels can be read apart, so it may be a good idea to begin with one of the best, Black and Blue, or pick a recent one, such as Saints of the Shadow Bible. You may also want to start with the first one, Knots & Crosses, when Rebus is 40 years of age and a Detective Sergeant working on the case of a serial killer who has been abducting and strangling young girls. Rebus receives anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses…

    [Henning Mankell (Photo Wikipedia)]

    2. "Kurt Wallander" by Henning Mankell (12 novels, between 1991 and 2009)
    I have only been to Sweden once, again when I was very young, and only to the Gotenburg area (unfortunately not to Stockholm, which I love because of the early 20th c. novels by Hjalmar Söderberg, as Doctor Glas). Ystad, where the Kurt Wallander novels are situated, is a small medieval town at the southernmost tip of Sweden, close to the large city Malmö. Copenhagen is only 1.5 hrs via the Øresund Bridge, so closer by than Stockholm (which is 5.5 hrs away). There is also a ferry connection with Poland.

    The author Henning Mankell (1948-2015) was born in Stockholm. He had an adventurous youth (traveling around the world and joining the student protest of 1968 in Paris) and first worked in the theater. He was a left-wing social critic and activist, and shared his time between Sweden and countries in Africa, mostly Mozambique. He constantly highlighted social inequality issues and injustice in Sweden and abroad. Also in the Wallander novels the overarching question is: "What went wrong with Swedish society?" But happily, Mankell never gets preachy.

    His protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a police inspector living and working in Ystad. His wife Mona has left him and he has since had a difficult relationship with his rebellious only child, Linda. Linda later will follow in the footsteps of her father as a police officer. Wallander also has a difficult relationship with his father, an artist who thousands of times just paints the same landscape for money, and who disapproves of the career choice of his son.

    Inspector Wallander drinks too much, consumes junk food, doesn't take exercise and struggles with his anger. He is always very much emotionally involved in the crimes he investigates. Over the years he has also become disillusioned with his work, not in the least because of office politics and the censure by colleagues and bosses of his brusque manner and aggressive tactics (as in the case of Rebus). Mankell puts the character development of Wallander central in the books. We follow his daily life and thoughts about family, or about getting older and his fear of Alzheimer, also when this is not related to the immediate plot - and that is what makes the books so interesting. Like the Rebus novels, they follow Wallander's career and life trough time. These are all passionate and committed books.

    Although the novels can be read separately, it is a good idea to start with the first one, Faceless Killers, in which an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered with as only clue the word "foreign" - Wallander must find the killers before anger towards foreigners boils over...

    [Fred Vargas (photo Wikipedia)]

    3. "Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg" by Fred Vargas (so far 8 novels, since 1991)
    The character of Paris-based Chief Inspector Adamsberg was created by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of medieval historian, archaeologist and folklorist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957). She became a two times winner of the International Dagger award. Vargas' police thrillers are a way to relax from her job as an academic and to combine her interests, such as Medieval legends and various types of folklore. The device of imposing fearful old myths and legends (such as werewolves, the plague or the "furious horde of phantoms") into a modern setting often leads to a supernatural background for human fear and paranoia, and results in surrealist scenes (but can also be a bit far-fetched).

    Like the two previous authors, also Vargas leads her readers in the series through the life and career of Adamsberg, his depressed personal relations, and the not always friction-free work relation with his colleagues, such as Inspector Danglard. Where the quixotic Adamsberg takes an indirect approach and relies on his Zen-like intuition, Danglard is the rationalist.

    Vargas breaks every rule of detective fiction and it is sometimes difficult to empathize with her strange characters, but she manages to win her readers by the universalism of her themes. It is best to read her novels in order (one point of criticism is that she assumes knowledge of the previous books and doesn't sufficiently fill in the background of Adamsberg for each individual book) and start with The Chalk Circle Man (L'Homme aux cercles bleus) from 1991, where we first meet Adamsberg and Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right...

    [Andrea Camilleri (Photo Wikipedia)]

    4. "Inspector Salvo Montalbano" by Andrea Camilleri (so far 23 novels, since 1994)
    Andrea Camilleri (1925) has created one of the most popular crime series at the moment with his Inspector Montalbano series. The books have a mischievous sense of humor and a lovable hero in the compassionate, but also cynical person of Montalbano. Interestingly, Camilleri, who studied stage and film direction and worked as a director and screenwriter as well as TV producer for RAI, started writing this series when he was almost 70 years of age, and he has already managed to finish 23 volumes!

    Salvo Montalbano is a detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town, based on Camilleri's  home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast. The novels contain a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases. The name Montalbano was selected by Camilleri as homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series of crime novels about a fictional private detective called Pepe Carvalho. Like Carvalho, Montalbano is a great gourmet, and we even get some interesting recipes.

    These are light and bubbly books, full of Italian sunshine, although the criminals are deadly and cruel and the police officers working for Montalbano not very efficient. In contrast to the previous novels, there is little character development, Montalbano remains the same bon vivant, who never misses a good lunch, or the delicacies prepared by his housekeeper (he lives alone, but has a girlfriend who now and then visits from the Italian mainland). So you could in principle pick any novel, although The Potter's Field excelled by winning the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. Generally speaking, I prefer the earlier novels when Camilleri's inspiration was still fresh, so the first novel, The Shape of Water, also forms a good start. These are books that will always put you in a good mood.

    [Arnaldur Indriðason (Photo Wikipedia)]

    5. "Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson" by Arnaldur Indriðason (so far 15 novels, since 1997)
    These novels with their stony Icelandic settings are bleak and dark books, indeed a form of Scandinavian noir. Author Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavik and after taking a history degree, worked as a journalist and freelance writer. He wrote the first book in the series with detective Erlendur in 1997, and has gone on to become the most popular writer of Iceland.

    Enigmatic Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, at roughly 50, is a brilliant police officer, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who jealously guards his privacy. He keeps stubbornly brooding about his cases and is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The stories reflect the silent, glacial progress of Erendur's battle with his own inner storms. Decades ago, he got divorced, and his son and daughter still can't understand how he could abandon them. His daughter, Eva Lind, suffers from a drug addiction, his son is an alcoholic. Erlendur's investigations also provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new, from the criminal justice system, racism and immigration to genetic diseases. Interestingly, the characters in the novel also show little respect for the police and are often shown lying to them. It is the background atmosphere more than the plots which is interesting.

    The novels can be read separately, although here, too, they make up something like a life story (in fact, the first two novels have not yet been translated into English), good ones are Jar City (the earliest one translated into English) and Voices. However, compared to Rankin and Mankell, Indriðason writes more superficially and never digs very deep, resulting in books which are enjoyable, but not much more than that.

    [John Banville (Photo Wikipedia)]

    6. "Pathologist Quirke" by Benjamin Black (so far 8 novels, since 2007)
    These books are not police procedurals, but a series about a consultant pathologist in the Dublin city morgue. They have been set in 1950s Dublin, and were written by Irish literary author John Banville (1950) under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black."

    John Banville is known for his precise prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness and for the dark humor of his (often immoral) narrators. He won the Booker Prize with The Sea in 2005. In 2007, Banville wrote his first crime novel, Christine Falls, set in buttoned-up 1950s Dublin as the author remembered it from his early youth, "a poverty-stricken but also beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty." Benjamin Black's Dublin is full of fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke. His protagonist is a troubled man, who is hard-drinking and intolerant, in many ways a damaged person - more at ease among the dead bodies in his pathologist's lab than among other humans. He lives alone, and his depression is made worse by his longing for his dead wife's sister, or the difficult relation with his daughter Phoebe.

    Banville was inspired to write these novels by Georges Simenon - not the Maigret books, but the "romans durs," such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes or Tropic Moon. Banville felt these were masterpieces of existential fiction, far better and less self-consciously literary than anything by Sartre or Camus.

    They inspired Banville to try his hand at crime fiction and he has eminently succeeded. Here, again, we have a life story of the protagonist, especially in the first few novels of the series, so it is best to read them in the order of publishing, starting with Christine Falls.

    [Written with some input from the Wikipedia articles about these authors and detectives]




    March 31, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (1): Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

    At the start I have to make a confession: I am not an "opera fan." I prefer abstract symphonic and chamber music (in my view the highest peak attainable in music) to music depending on words and stories. The only operas I could stomach so far were those by Mozart (Mozart's music always is complex and in his last five operas his characterization is deep and subtle), and single arias from Baroque operas by for example Handel and Vivaldi (but not the whole operas because their stories are too silly and the characters too flat). I can't stand 19th c. belcanto (Donizetti, Bellini), Grand Opera (Meyerbeer), German Romanticism (Weber), Verdi or Wagner (all those grown-up people strutting around with card-board shields and spears and pretending to be mythical deities, in static but blown-up stories that move at a glacial pace and never seem to end).

    But then I discovered 20th c. opera. From Richard Strauss via Alban Berg to John Adams, these modern operas are mature and serious, and I discovered quite a few that are simply fascinating. What also makes a difference is that 20th c. composers were in the first place symphonists and not opera specialists, so that the orchestra is center stage - the symphonic aspect is often more important than the singers. In addition, most 20th c. composers have given up on individual arias, choruses or set pieces, but instead build one overarching musical edifice; a sort of declamation takes the place of belcanto singing, making those operas a more realistic form of theater.

    Here is the first of my favorite 20th century operas:

    [Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

    Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
    Let's first set one thing straight: Debussy has often been called an "Impressionist" - but Impressionism, which was a trend in painting, had long been surpassed by other fashions when Debussy wrote his music. As also his preference for poets as Verlaine and Maeterlinck demonstrates, Debussy was first and for all a Symbolist - the major trend in literature, painting and music around the turn of the century. As Constant Lambert says in Music Ho!, "By suspending a chord in space, as it were, Debussy recalls the methods of the literary Symbolists."

    So not surprisingly, Debussy's only completed opera is based on a Symbolist, allegorical play by Nobel-Prize winning Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck (whose plays were very popular around that time). The radical novelty Debussy brought to opera - and why Pelléas et Mélisande became the first truly modern opera - is that he used the play as it was (only making some judicious cuts), having the original prose text declaimed over an ever-moving orchestration, staying close to the rhythms of natural speech in French (this was something radically new - so far, professional librettists had always been employed to fashion prose texts into metrical verse - for how do you fit melodies to unmetred prose?). There are no arias, choruses or set pieces. This enables Debussy to capture the subtleties of human behavior, with the orchestra's delicate texture playing a bigger expressive part than the singers. Instead of using leitmotifs in the unsubtle "visiting card technique" of Wagner, Debussy employs them as a way to draw musical shapes that represent his characters' psychological states. This resulted in the single most innovative opera from the fin-de-siècle. Not all contemporaries were enthusiastic, though - the opera was also seen as "full of the germs of decadence and death."

    [The opera Pelléas et Mélisande painted by 
    Edmund Blair Leighton]

    The music itself is indeed often ambiguous and undecided, as if symbolical of Maeterlinck's pessimistic denial of free will. The emphasis is on quietness and subtlety, allowing the words of the libretto to be heard and understood; there are only a few fortissimos in the entire score. But the lack of operatic refulgence does not mean the music is monotonous: the love scenes between Pelléas and Mélisande are filled with passion, and the grim fourth act, when Golaud takes his revenge, is violent but also filled with ecstasy as the lovers, knowing they are doomed, embrace each other for the last time. Debussy's example influenced many later composers who edited their own libretti from existing prose plays, such as Richard Strauss in Salome, Alban Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu and Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Die Soldaten.

    What had changed by 1900 is that the dominance of the "opera specialists" was over - Puccini was the last traditional opera composer. Debussy, Strauss, and others were instrumental composers who came from a different sonic world than traditional opera and who dared make radical changes - Pelléas et Mélisande has little to say to people who like narrative thrust and self-contained arias. But after some years of divided reception, by 1910 it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.

    [Claude Debussy, by Donald Sheridan]

    The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a sensuously sinister exploration of sexuality. In the mystical land of Allemonde, Golaud is out hunting when he finds a mysterious young woman by a pond, who is defined be her beautiful, but abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure (and fetishized in both play and opera): Mélisande. She has lost her crown in the water but does not wish to retrieve it. She keeps her identity and origins hidden, and yet Golaud falls instantly in love with her. He marries her and takes her to his family castle, where she wins the favor of Arkel, Golaud's aged father and king of Allemonde, who is ill. However, she soon falls in love with the young Pelléas, Golaud's stepbrother and Pelléas also becomes enchanted by his sister-in-law's beauty. They meet by a fountain, where Mélisande rather symbolically loses her wedding ring in the deep water.

    Later, the two gradually grow closer to each other, especially when Mélisande from a window in the castle tower lets her extraordinary long hair be caressed by Pelléas standing on the ground below - he even binds her tresses to a tree. They are caught by Golaud, but he is not suspicious (yet) and as the older man thinks this is just a children's game. But as Mélisande is pregnant, he warns Pelléas not to make her tired. Golaud however feels his brother is hiding something from him and interrogates his young son, Yniold, about how the couple behaves when alone together. Afterwards, he has the boy stand on his shoulders and spy on the couple through Mélisande's window. Through the boy's innocent answers he now is awakened to the reality of the situation.

    [Mary Garden, the first Mélisande]

    Next, as the old king has recovered from his illness, Pelléas is requested to go on a trip. He asks Mélisande to come to the well in the garden at night to say goodbye to her. In the meantime, Golaud quarrels with Mélisande in front of Arkel, dragging her around the room by her long hair, and she tells her father-in-law that her husband doesn't love her anymore. At night, Pelléas and Mélisande meet at the well and confess their love for each other. When they kiss, Golaud appears from the shadows and kills his brother, severely wounding Mélisande.

    In the last act, Mélisande has given birth to a baby girl. She lies on the bed under a white sheet with her gorgeous hair flowing down to the ground. Golaud presses her to tell the truth about her relation with Pelléas. After maintaining her innocence, Mélisande dies, leaving Arkel to comfort the sobbing Golaud.

    The Maeterlinck play, by the way, inspired several other contemporary composers: Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius both wrote incidental music for it, and Arnold Schoenberg based a lush, late-Romantic symphonic poem on the tragic story. But Debussy's conception is the greatest of them all.

    Recording watched and listened to: Pierre Boulez (conductor) and Peter Stein (production) with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, with Alison Hagley (Mélisande), Neil Archer (Pélleas), Donald Maxwell (Golaud) and Kenneth Cox (Arkel) on Deutsche Grammophon (DVD 1992). Peter Stein's production is uncluttered and vaguely suggestive rather than becoming too literal. The scenery and dresses are often dark, but also lustrous, like black lacquer. Alison Hagley plays Mélisande as a woman-child with a mysterious smile. She also sings gorgeously. Neill Archer is an appealingly young Pelléas.


    March 26, 2016

    Best Piano Concertos from the Twentieth Century (Part One)

    1. Ferruccio Busoni, Piano Concerto in C Major Op 39 (1904)
    In its grand Wagnerian conception (there is even a male chorus in the operatic last movement) this is in fact still a very 19th c. concerto, although there are also associations with the gargantuan Mahler symphonies. Busoni conceived his concerto in five movements. The first, third and fifth movements are large, serious conceptions - the third slow movement is the emotional heart of the work. The second and fourth movements are both Italian dances, tarantella, each using Neapolitan folk song. The last movement incorporates an (invisible) male chorus. In this way, the concerto both possesses great nobility and dignity while on the other hand remaining brilliant fun. One could call it a combination of the native Italian and German-influenced sides of Busoni. But while it is huge, it is also modest, as much of the piano line remains hidden as part of the orchestral texture. A sincere and heartfelt concerto.
    [Marc-Andre Hamelin at Youtube; Garrick Ohlsson on Telarc]

    [Busoni]

    2. Frederick Delius, Piano Concerto in C Minor (1904 / 1907)
    Delius is an acquired taste. When I first listened to him, in my early twenties, I felt lost in the formless, lyrical soup of his music and hankered after clearer contours. But today his music fits me like a glove - we probably get more mellow and lyrical with the years... The piano concerto was the first concertante work Delius wrote and it had a rather troubled genesis, going through various versions. Today, the version in three movements from 1904 is generally considered as the most interesting and most typically "Delian" (in the last and "standard" version of 1907 the piano part was at Delius' request rewritten by a pianist-friend, but it is more Chopin than Delius). It is a full-blooded romantic concerto, but without any empty pianistic display, so although this is an early work, we already can hear Delius' mature lyrical and meditative style. Both themes of the first movement show the influence of the Afro-American sounds which influenced Delius so much during his Florida sojourns. The central Largo movement has a sonorous piano part, and the third movement (which was discarded in the 1907 version) ends with a grand tutti in Delius's finest orchestral splendor. Perhaps because of the many revisions, Delius' piano concerto is less well-known than his violin concerto or cello concerto, but it is an appealing piece of music that certainly deserves to be heard more. The 1904 version lasts about 30 min.
    [Howard Shelley on Chandos and Piers Lane on Hyperion (three movement version 1904); Justin Bird on Youtube (standard version 1907)]

    [Delius]

    3. Max Reger, Piano Concerto In F Minor Op 114 (1910)
    A sprawling, serious, three-movement concerto lasting roughly 40 minutes, with a tempestuous first movement, an elegiac and delicate second movement and a vigorous third movement full of "clenched teeth" exuberance. The heroic first movement starts with a portentous orchestral introduction and bold first statement by the piano. The piano is fully integrated with the orchestra. The thick-set textures and chromatism are typical of Reger. In dramatic seriousness and complexity this work is equal to the second Brahms concerto. Few composers however have been as misunderstood as Max Reger, whose music has often been regarded as heavy and unrelievedly contrapuntal. This is a massive, tragic concerto.
    [Barry Douglas on RCA Victor]

    4. Ernst von Dohnányi, Variations on a Nursery Theme for Piano and Orchestra (1916)
    This is pure fun, a tongue-in-cheek humorous and playful concerto: an introduction, statement-of-theme and then eleven variations on the nursery rhyme tune “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” ("Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman"). The pompous introduction is full of Wagnerian gestures and faux pathos, until a cymbal clash brings the piano on stage with the nostalgic old nursery tune, an unexpected contrast which will make you smile. What follows is a witty set of variations often alluding to the musical style of other composers. The first variation is simple and innocent, the third one romantic, bringing to mind Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, the sixth variation scampers along, the seventh variation is a boisterous waltz, variation eight alludes to the march from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony and the pathos-laden tenth variation hearkens back to the Wagnerian opening. In contrast, the eleventh variation sports ethereal harmonies which allude to Debussy. Dohnányi aptly wrote on the score "to the enjoyment of friends of humor, to the annoyance of the others."
    [Howard Shelley on Chandos]

    [Dohnányi]

    5. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor Op 16 (1913 / 1923)
    This concerto carries two dates: it was originally written and performed in 1913, but in WWI the score was lost, and in in 1923, after writing his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev reconstructed it from memory, but also altered so many elements, that it became in fact a new work, his real "fourth concerto." Prokofiev gave the new version more depth, but he also kept the original piano-athletics, making this one of the most challenging of all piano concertos. Perhaps that is why it has always been in the shadow of Prokofiev's other concertos, at least until the 1970s, when it crept to the edge of the repertoire. The concerto is in four movements, the second movement a devilish perpetuum mobile and the third a sinister march and another piece of fierce motorism. In a sense both these movements are intermezzos between the more expansive first movement and finale, both of which feature huge cadenzas as their focal point. The whole concerto is imbued with something like the grinding harshness of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite of 1915. It is a dark concerto (dedicated to the memory of a friend of Prokofiev's at the St. Petersburg Conservatory who had committed suicide) imbued with a wild temperament.
    [Yefim Bronfman on Youtube; Michel Beroff on Warner Music]

    [Prokofiev by Matisse]

    6. Erich Korngold, Piano Concerto in C Minor for the Left Hand (1923)
    In the 1920s, Korngold stood at the apex of his fame (he was the most performed composer after Richard Strauss in Austria), when he was approached by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein to compose a concerto for the left hand. Paul Wittgenstein, who was the elder brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, had lost his right arm in that terrible European war, WWI, but instead of giving up the piano, he devised novel techniques that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist. He also actively commissioned works from well-known composers of his day, including Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Paul Hindemith, but he first approached Erich Korngold, who had just written his great opera Die tote Stadt. This concerto shows Korngold at his most experimental and features a very large and colorful orchestra. It is in one movement and so concentrated in form that it makes repeated listening necessary. Harmony and tonality are highly original. As a serious composer, Korngold was almost forgotten after he fled for the Nazis and had to build up a new career as film composer in Hollywood, but today he has been fully rehabilitated. Another factor limiting the popularity of this highly unique concerto was that Wittgenstein possessed the exclusive performing rights until his death in 1961. By the way, Wittgenstein was so pleased with this work that he commissioned another composition from Korngold, the Suite for Left Hand Piano and Strings
    [Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion]

    [Korngold]

    7. Igor Stravinsky, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923–24)
    After the Russian extravagance and barbaric Impressionism of his famous ballets in the years before WWI, Stravinsky became a neo-classicist, in contrast working with small ensembles and in more traditional forms, although he also looked for novelty in for example the interesting combination of the piano with only a wind orchestra. In this highly original concerto, eighteenth century gestures may be employed to tease the ears, but basically, this is hard driven, aggressive and percussive music, undeniably Stravinskian. In contrast, the slow movement is extremely simple and therefore all the more memorable. There is a playful episode at the end of the third and last movement, where the music stops and the piano just repeats a single chord, as if the pianist had forgotten what to play, before the final chase to the end. A vigorous and brilliant concerto.
    [Alexander Toradze on Youtube; Steven Osborn on Hyperion]

    [Stravinsky by Picasso]

    8. Paul Hindemith,  Kammermusik No 2 for Piano and 12 Instruments, Op 36 no 1 (1924)
    Another neo-classical concerto, with a small orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, string trio and double bass. It is Baroque in spirit, each movement is carried forward irresistibly by a basic pulse. The piano writing is not only highly rhythmic, but also very contrapuntal. The first movement is toccata-like, with busy motoric figurations; in the slow movement the piano spins melodic variations above an ostinato bass theme; and after a tiny scherzo the Finale resumes the energetic style of the opening movement. A very fine work, like all Hindemith's eight "Kammermusiken."
    [Ronald Brautigam on Decca]

    9. Ottorino Respighi, Concerto in modo misolidio for piano and orchestra (1925)
    After writing his large-scale symphonic poems, Respighi looked for a way to create typically Italian music and found it in Gregorian chant. This interest is evident in his 1921 violin concerto, Concerto gregoriano, and in the present piano concerto. The piano concerto makes use of the seventh of the church modes ("modo misolidio") and carries a flavor of plainchant in its material, the source of its inspiration. It opens with a passage for the piano based on the Introit for the Mass of Ascension Day. Also the beautiful slow movement features a Gregorian melody, brought as a dialogue between piano and orchestra. The third movement is a Passacaglia, with eighteen variations, inventively bubbling music. The concerto ends with an impressively romantic climax.
    [Konstantin Sherbakov on Naxos]

    [Respighi]

    10. George Gershwin, Concerto in F (1925)
    This is very fine music, a response to demands for a "proper concerto" after the success of the Rhapsody in Blue, avoiding programmatic content. The many themes are both uplifting and nostalgic. The concerto has been called "a masterpiece of unity under a veneer of medley," an integration achieved through cyclic form and thematic transformation. In fact, virtually every tune in the Gershwin concerto is linked to the big melody that follows the introduction to the first movement. The finale, in rondo form, also acts as a grand recapitulation of the whole work, again tying things together. With its snappy rhythms and jazzy dissonances layered over a diatonic foundation, this concerto is the avatar of the Jazz Age.
    [Yuja Wang at Youtube; Orion Weiss on Naxos]

    [Gershwin]

    11. Aaron Copland, Piano Concerto (1926)
    Jazz was in the air and Copland's concerto of 1926 forms a sort of dialogue with the Gershwin concerto. Copland starts of with a brash, dissonant fanfare, a typical "wide spaces" opening, followed by a calm if astringent Andante sostenuto. After this more traditional 1920s music, the soloist erupts with a variety of rhythmic and intervallic invocations of jazz. In other words, like in Copland's (later) clarinet concerto, a song-like first movement is linked by a cadenza to a fast and rhythmically complex final movement. But as the jazz element is not so much present in the tunes but rather as the underlying harmonic and rhythmic basis of the score, the concerto is very different from Gershwin. In this concerto we find the harder-edged Copland from the time before he deliberately popularized his style in the 1930s.
    [Noel Lee on Etcetera; Bennett Lerner at Youtube]

    [Copland]

    12. Leoš Janáček, Capriccio for Piano Left-Hand and Chamber Ensemble (1926)
    Another concerto for the left hand, not for Wittgenstein, but the Czech pianist Otokar Hollmann (another WWI victim). The work is scored for chamber ensemble consisting of flute and piccolo, two trumpets, three trombones and a tenor tuba, resulting in an even more original sound than Stravinsky's concerto discussed above. The Capriccio consists of four movements. Privately, Janáček called it "Defiance," either referring to the attitude of the pianist who continued playing despite his loss of an arm, or to the "defiant" combination of a piano with mainly brass instruments. The virtuoso brass sound looks back to the military sound of Janáček's Sinfonietta, but is of course much more transparent here. All the same, unusual demands are placed on all individual players, not only the piano. The overall effect is indeed "capricious": whimsical and full of "willfulness and witticisms," as Janáček himself said. Delicious music in Janáček's late style.
    [Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Youtube; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos]

    13. Darius Milhaud, Le carnaval d'Aix, fantasy for piano & orchestra Op 83b (1926)
    This music is good fun, like a real carnival. Milhaud was born in sunny southern France and in Carnival d'Aix he makes this connection explicit. However, this music was just as much inspired by Milhaud's wanderings in Brazil: the composer imagines a group of traditional Commedia dell'Arte characters from the Italian theater, dressed up for the Carnival in Rio, and then magically transported to his homeland in Aix-en-Province. It is a lighthearted work in twelve short sections, sometimes based on dance melodies as polka and tango, filled with good humor and affectionate parody. It also displays all the hallmarks of Milhaud's style: curious chromatic diversions, subtle but incisive use of dissonance within a tonal context, polytonal complexes, and vibrant rhythms inspired by jazz and South American music. Captivating music.
    [Jack Gibbons on Helios]


    [Milhaud]

    14. Nikolai Medtner, Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor Op 50 (1927)
    Nikolai Medtner wrote three concertos, the second of which is my favorite, an energetic and entrancing piece of music. Medtner was a pianist-composer like Rachmaninoff, and he also left Russia after the Soviets came to power, emigrating to the U.K. The concerto is in three movements: Toccata, Romanza and Divertimento. The outer movements are ebullient and full of kinetic energy, the central Romanza is delightfully lyrical. In the first movement there is much dialogue between piano and orchestra and the tireless motor rhythms also show Medtner loved his Scarlatti. The Divertimento plays with themes from the previous movements in a dancing style that culminates in a riot. Medtner's music is not as gripping as Rachmaninoff, but it grows on you, and you will not tire of it as soon as of that of his fellow emigre-countryman. A concerto that deserves to be better known.
    [Geoffrey Tozer on Chandos]

    [Medtner]

    15. John Foulds, Dynamic Triptych for Piano and Orchestra (1929)
    This is a truly magnificent concerto that for long years was completely forgotten. Foulds was popular in the 1920s for his A World Requiem in commemoration of the war dead, but was soon forgotten after his death from cholera in India in 1939. The Dynamic Triptych was only performed once (in 1933) and then lay forgotten until Howard Shelley dusted it off for his Lyrita performance in 1984. It is dramatic and experimental music, written under the influence of exotic music theories. The first movement is called "Dynamic Mode," the second "Dynamic Timbre" and the third "Dynamic Rhythm." The writing for both piano and orchestra is exuberant. The slow movement is the most romantic, Foulds inhabits a very shadowy world and the use of slithery quarter-tones is really disturbing in effect. The last movement is a sparkling dance. Jazz plays its part here, we hear cross-rhythms and changes of meter, clusters and complex chords. It is virtuoso music full of unstoppable energy which will blow the mind of anyone who hears it for the first time. Foulds may well be one of the most undervalued composers of the 20th century.
    [Howard Shelley on Lyrita]

    [Foulds]

    16. John Ireland, Piano Concerto in E Flat major (1930)
    A lyrical concerto with jazzy dance band elements. Was long seen as the pre-eminent British piano concerto, a worthy pendant to the contemporary Prokofiev and Ravel concertos. Although it has now sunk into oblivion, the concerto was immediately successful and was often performed by British and international soloists over four decades. The concerto was written for the brilliant 19-year old pianist Helen Perkin, for whom the composer obviously harbored tender feelings (he even quotes from a string quartet she had composed as a student). Helen Perkins premiered the concerto at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert, an event which made both their names, but to Ireland's disappointment she next married an architect and moved with him to Australia. Music is not all-powerful, apparently.
    [Eric Parkin on Chandos]

    [Ireland]

    17. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Piano Concerto in C (1926-31)
    A concerto full of drama and turbulence, like Vaughan Williams' music from the same period as the Fourth Symphony and Job. The three movements are titled Toccata, Romanza and Fuga chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca. The Toccata is characterized by two "blocks" of music, a driving piano solo set against a rising theme in the orchestra with which the concerto starts, and a more scherzo-like idea, shared between piano and orchestra. A thunderous piano cadenza forms the link to the slow movement which starts without a break, a delicate Romanza. The third movement again follows without a break and begins with a fugue that is linked to a waltz finale. In this concerto, Vaughan Williams treated the piano as a percussion instrument, as did Bartók and Hindemith during this period - the orchestral texture is at times very thick. The composer took the advice of well-meaning critics to rework his music into a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1946), adding more texture to the piano parts, but today the original version is considered as superior.
    [Howard Shelley on Lyrita]

    [Vaughan Williams]

    18. Constance Lambert, Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1931)
    This a deliciously jazzy concerto, but one which also becomes unexpectedly serious as the music advances. The nine players are flute (doubling piccolo), three clarinets, trumpet, trombone, cello, string bass and percussion, leading to contrast-rich music as in the Stravinsky and Janacek concertos. It is a starkly incisive, even abrasive work. The three movements are called Overture, Intermède and Finale (Lugubre) - and the ending is sad and silent. It has been called "a form of musical parable that investigates every phrase of language, to discard them all, little by little, so as to arrive at something which comes near to an invitation to silence. All this by a route that starts from an apparent rhythmical vital attack, progressing to the final desolate notes of the blues - subtitled "Lugubre" - through all of which, from time to time, can be recognized the echoes of jazz..." (from the sleeve notes by Silvio D'Amicone). A very original work.
    [Alessandro de Curtis on ASdisc; Ian Brown on Helios]

    [Lambert by Wood]

    Posts about classical music include:
    • Best Piano Concertos, Part One 
    • Best Piano Concertos, Part Two
    • Best Piano Concertos, Part Three 

      February 21, 2016

      "The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (short review)

      The Noise of TimeThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
      My rating: 4 of 5 stars

      Julian Barnes enters the head of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (with Stravinsky the greatest 20th century composer) at three critical moments in his life: in 1936 when his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" has been condemned by Stalin himself and the composer fears arrest; in 1948 when Stalin orders him to join a propaganda tour to the U.S. where he has to read out prepared speeches denouncing Stravinsky (whom he admires); and in 1960 when he lets himself be pushed to join the Communist Party and reaps criticism from his friends. Shostakovich was decidedly not a hero or a dissident (and he was probably more "red" than Barnes makes him), but how many people would have sacrificed their career and family to stand up to a totalitarian regime? What his example shows is how inhuman totalitarianism is, for it makes liars and dissemblers of us all. Time to listen to one of Shostakovich wonderful string quartets...


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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)]
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