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September 20, 2013

The Best Works for Viola (Music review)

Since the 18th c., the viola has been the middle or "alto" voice of the violin family, positioned between the violin and the cello. Compared to the violin, which has the same basic construction, the viola is slightly larger in size; it is also heavier, strung with thicker and less responsive strings. This results in a mellower, deeper, richer and warmer sound. In fact, it is a very particular sound, with a dusky luminescence about it. The player of the viola is called a violist, in contrast to "violinist" which is used for violin players.

Many of the greatest composers, including Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, played themselves the viola in preference to the violin. The viola was popular in the Baroque and Classical period, when hundreds of concertos were written for it. The three major concertos from the Classical period are those by Stamitz, Hoffmeister and the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola by Mozart. Although in ensembles it was originally an instrument that only filled out the harmony, Mozart liberated the viola in his six string quintets where he gave it many solo passages.

In the Romantic period, the viola suffered the same fate as the oboe (and, initially, the cello): the craze for (often empty) virtuoso concertos led to a dominance of the piano and - in a smaller way - the violin. But Berlioz wrote his Harold in Italy with the viola as solo instrument; Schumann the Marchenbilder for Viola and Piano; and also in Brahms' music the viola plays an important role, both in ensemble music and in the sonatas Op. 120 which Brahms himself transcribed from clarinet for viola. Finally, Richard Strauss used the viola in his tone poem Don Quixote for the character of Sancho Panza.

It is in the 20th century that the viola finally again comes into its own - four influential performers, Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith, William Primrose and Yuri Bashmet have promoted their instrument and made composers recognize its worth. In the past hundred years many major composers have written concertos or chamber works for the viola. The three most famous viola concertos from the 20th c. are those by Bartok, Hindemith and Walton. Other important viola composers include Bliss, Bowen, Dale, Bloch, Clarke, Rosza, Frankel and Schnittke, to name only a few. Hindemith, Dale and Clarke were themselves viola players.

Here are some of my favorite works for the viola:

1. Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto for Viola and Strings in G major, TWV 51:G9 [1716-1721]
One of Telemann's most famous concertos, and one of the earliest concertos written for the viola. The concerto is in four movements. It starts with a simple and mellow Largo, featuring a "sighing" melody, where the viola plays in its lower register with its rich timbres; the next Allegro begins with a distinctive syncopated figure, which also recurs later - its is an elegant and pleasing movement; the Andante is mainly played on the upper strings of the viola and brings a sorrowful melody; and the finale is a fast and exuberant Presto. Besides this solo concerto, Telemann also wrote a concerto for two violas.
Recording listened to:  Florian Deuter, viola, with Musica Antiqua Köln conducted by Reinhard Goebel on Archiv (with concerto for two violas etc). Authentic instruments and playing style.

2. Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Viola d'Amore in D major, RV 392 [1724 or later]
The viola d'amore was an instrument popular in the 18th c. which in size resembled the viola, but which usually had twelve strings. Half of these strings were for playing on with the bow, as they ran over fingerboard and bridge, the others ran under these and provided sympathetic resonances. "Sympathetic strings" or "resonance strings" are auxiliary strings that are also found on many Indian musical instruments and a variety of worldwide folk instruments. They are not played directly by the performer, only indirectly through the tones that are played on the main strings, based on the principle of sympathetic resonance, usually in unison with or an octave lower or higher than the catalyst note. Telemann, Biber, Handel and J.S. Bach wrote for the viola d'amore (Bach used it in a bass arioso in the St. John Passion), but Vivaldi, who was familiar with it from a young age, wrote six solo concertos for it, as well as a chamber concerto and a concerto together with the lute (the popular RV 540). RV 392 is an exuberant piece in the major key (four out of his six viola d'amore concertos are in the minor key), which amply displays the special qualities of the viola d'amore.
Recording listened to: Catherine Mackintosh, viola d'amore and director, with The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment on Hyperion. Authentic instruments and playing style. 

3. Carl Philipp Stamitz, Concerto in D major, Op. 1 [1773]
Carl Stamitz (1745 – 1801) was the most prominent representative of the second generation of the Mannheim School. He was the eldest son of Johann Stamitz; his brother Anton was also a prolific composer. Stamitz wrote extensively for the viola - he himself played the instrument as well as the viola d'amore: we have three concertos, two sinfonias concertante in which the viola is featured; a sonata; and 36 duos for violin and viola. The Concerto in D major is a large-scale work with impressive solo writing. To realize a warm tone color, the orchestration calls for clarinets rather than oboes and the violas have been divided in two parts. Stamitz has realized a great sensuous beauty in this concerto.  
Recording listened to: Victoria Chiang, viola, with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, directed by Markand Thakar on Naxos (with viola concertos by Hoffmeister)

4. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach / Johann Gottlieb Graun, Sonata for Obbligato Keyboard and Viola in C minor 
This sonata has come down to us in two different manuscripts, one attributed to Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771), the other associating it with Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710 – 1784). As WF Bach wrote no other sonatas for obbligato keyboard, Graun may be the more likely composer, but stylistically the sonata contains aspects that agree with the styles of both WF Bach and Graun. If the work is by WF Bach it could have been written in his late years in Berlin as an emulation of the style of Graun, who had been his teacher. Whoever the composer may be, the sonata is a charming work with an unusual movement cycle of slow-fast-fast.
Recording listened to: Nobuko Imai, viola, and Ronald Pontinen, harpsichord, on Philips (with sonatas by J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach)

[Hummel - Image Wikipedia]

5. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Sonata in E flat major for Viola and Pianoforte Op. 5 No. 3 [1798]
The composer and virtuoso pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was a pupil of Mozart. When Hummel was eight years of age, Mozart took him in his house and taught him free of charge. In this way, Hummel became the core person to bring Mozart's style of piano playing into the 19th century. Hummel's own music - today unjustly forgotten - was mainly for the piano but also includes many interesting chamber music works (piano trios, two septets, etc.), concertos for other instruments than the piano, such as the trumpet and mandolin, and more than 20 operas. The present viola sonata is an early work and therefore not surprisingly shows a strong Mozartian influence. It opens with a jaunty theme; the Adagio cantabile resembles a slow march, above which the viola sings expressively; and the Rondo concludes this pleasant work with the usual bustle.
Recording listened to: Anna Barbara Duetschler, viola, and Ursula Duetschler, fortepiano on Claves (with viola sonatas by Stamitz, Dittersdorf and Vanhal)

6. Benjamin Dale, Suite for Viola and Piano, Op. 2 [1906]
The English composer and academic Benjamin James Dale (1885 – 1943) had a long association with the Royal Academy of Music. From an early age, Dale showed talent for composition and went on to create a small but interesting corpus. Among these are three chamber works for the viola, most notably the three movement Suite for Viola and Piano, first performed in 1906 by renowned violist Lionel Tertis and the pianist/composer York Bowen. It is a viola sonata in all but name, an ambitious work that stretched the boundaries of viola technique at the time. A highly entertaining and excellent piece that deserves to be better known.
Recording listened to: Simon Rowland-Jones, viola, and Niel Immelman, piano, on Etcetera (music for viola and piano by Dale).

[Charles Koechlin - photo Wikipedia]

7. Charles Koechlin, Sonata for Viola and Piano [1913-1915]
Charles Louis Eugène Koechlin (1867 – 1950) was a French composer, teacher and writer on music. He was a pupil of Fauré, who had a major influence on Koechlin. Koechlin was very prolific, and also highly eclectic - he was inspired by such diverse elements as the Orient, French folk songs, choral music by Bach and Hollywood movies. He developed an expressive language that was all his own. He wrote symphonies (the Seven Stars Symphony, inspired by Hollywood), symphonic poems (a cycle after The Jungle Book) and many pieces of chamber music. The sonata for viola and piano is one of Koechlin's most dramatic works. It is a dark and intimate piece of music, called "The Human Complaint" by Koechlin in his autobiography. There are four movements: a calm adagio; a bitter scherzo; a meditative andante; and a sombre and plaintive finale. Most of the sonata was written under the impression of the Great War, where Koechlin worked as hospital attendant.
Recording listened to: Michel Michalakakos, viola, and Martine Gagnepain, piano, on Skarbo (with Koechlin's violin sonata)

8. Ernest Bloch, Suite for Viola and Orchestra [1919]
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a 20th-century Swiss-born American composer. He studied with Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels, and settled in the U.S. in 1916, where he was active as teacher at various conservatories and universities, mostly on the West Coast. Bloch had a Jewish background; although he wrote several works with Jewish inspiration, he was also influenced by Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, Chinese music and the neo-classical style. Bloch wrote four viola works, all chamber music, although he himself reworked the 1918 Coolidge Prize-winning Suite for Viola and Piano into an exotic orchestra version. The four movement suite is one of the twentieth century's most important works for the viola, a romantic view of East Asia. The work is in four movements. The opening movement portrays wild and primitive nature; this is followed by a sardonic scherzo; the third movement is a sort of night music, "a nighttime journey through Javanese villages from which can be heard the distant sound of musical instruments"; and the final movement reveals the interest Bloch developed in Chinese music.
Recording listened to: Hong-Mei Xiao, viola, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariusz Smolij on Naxos.

[Rebecca Clarke with viola
- photo Wikipedia]

9. Rebecca Clarke, Sonata for Viola and Piano [1919]
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was born in England to an American father and German mother. After her musical studies with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, she pursued a career as performer on both violin and viola. She moved to the United States in 1916. Her viola sonata was composed for the Berkshire, Massachusetts Music Festival. The three movement work is in a late romantic, rather chromatic style. The opening movement is full of passion; the middle movement playful, with pizzicato effects; and the finale, after opening with a dreamy adagio, displays much festive energy and ends with a display of virtuosity for both the viola and the piano.
Recording listened to: Thomas Riebl, viola, and Cordelia Hoefer, piano, on Pan Classics (with viola sonatas by Hindemith and Bloch)

10. Granville Bantock, Sonata in F major for Viola and Piano, "Colleen" [1920]
The English composer Sir Granville Bantock 1868 – 1946) studied at the Royal College of Music and worked as conductor in Brighton and Liverpool. Later he was Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, where he also helped found the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. His symphonic music was influenced by folk song of the Hebrides as well as Celtic legend, and also by a certain element of exoticism. Since the 1990s, there has been a revival of his forgotten music on CD. Bantock wrote two viola sonatas, of which the first one is a large-scale work, clocking in at well over 30 minutes. It is a robust but also lyrical sonata of a rhapsodic nature. The "Colleen" of the title refers to the Irish folk song "Colleen Dhas," one of the melodies used in the 3rd movement. In the first movement a four-note motif reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier is almost obsessively manipulated. The next maestoso begins in a melancholy way and contains an allusion to the Dies Irae. The finale provides a change of mood in the form of a vivacious Irish jig, after which follows the above mentioned folk tune of "Colleen Dhas," ending the sonata on a high-spirited note.
Recording listened to: Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola, and Christian Wilson, piano, on Naxos (with viola sonatas by Bainton and Holland).

[Paul Hindemith - photo Wikipedia]

11. Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No. 5, op. 36 no. 4, "Viola Concerto" [1925]
The German composer Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963) is one of the most important representatives of twentieth-century music. He was a violinist who later switched to the viola - in 1921 he founded the Amar Quartet, in which he played the viola. In 1923 Hindemith became organizer of the Donaueschingen Festival where contemporary compositions were played - including his own, leading to a breakthrough for him as a composer. After the Nazis came to power, Hindemith emigrated to the U.S. and became an American citizen. He spent the last years of his life in Switzerland. Hindemith's production also includes important music-theoretical and pedagogical writings. Not surprisingly, he wrote extensively for the viola: four viola concertos (of which the most famous is Der Schwanendreher), four sonatas for viola solo and three sonatas for viola with piano. He often played his own viola works at recitals, further promoting his instrument. The Kammermusik No. 5, op. 36 no. 4, "Viola Concerto"  was Hindemith's first viola concerto and it is a fun piece from his "Neue Sachlichkeit" ("New Objectivity") period. It is an ebullient piece of music, in which the orchestra mainly consists of woodwind and brass, with only a few cellos and basses - a perfect blend of the joyful and the serious. Interestingly, in the same series of Kammermusiken Hindemith also wrote a concerto for viola d'amore - Hindemith played this antique instrument himself.
Recording listened to: Kim Kashkashian, viola, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra directed by Riccardo Chailly on London/Decca (complete Kammermusik by Hindemith)

12. William Walton, Viola Concerto [1929]
The English composer William Walton (1902-1983) was a slow worker and perfectionist, so his total body of music is small but fine. He wrote two symphonies and three concertos, one opera, various pieces of ballet music, chamber works, and film music. The viola concerto from 1929 (revised in 1962) is one of his best compositions and established Walton in the vanguard of contemporary English music. It was the first large-scale work of the young composer, written for the violist Lionel Tertis but first performed by Paul Hindemith (Tertis felt initially not comfortable with the modernist idiom). It is a lyrical work that is often deemed to owe a certain debt to Elgar's Cello Concerto. It opens reflectively, is in three movements (slow-fast-fast) and typically contrasts agitated and jagged passages with warmer romantic sections. The concerto has both emotional depth, a profusion of ideas and contrapuntal dexterity.
Recording listened to: Nigel Kennedy, viola, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on EMI (with Walton's violin concerto)

13. Béla Bartók, Viola Concerto (completed by Tibor Serly)  [1949]
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was the foremost 20th c. Hungarian composer, who was also active as ethnomusicologist. In the late 1930s, he fled for the Nazis and spent the last five years of his life in the United States. These years saw a new flurry of activity, for example in the Third Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra (1942), today Bartok's most famous work. The viola concerto was commissioned by William Primrose, and it literally became Bartok's swansong: when he died in 1945, he left only a draft consisting of the viola part and sketches for the orchestral part. The work was finished by the Hungarian-born composer, violist and conductor Tibor Serly (there is some controversy about Serly's version, and since the original manuscript was finally published in 1995, another version has also seen the light, involving Bartok's son; the differences are however relatively minor, and more a matter of overall flavor). In the Serly version, Bartok's viola concerto has become quite popular. The concerto consists of a serious Allegro, a Scherzo, a (rather short) slow movement, and a finale beginning Allegretto and developing the tempo to an Allegro molto. The first movement contains a phrase that is loosely reminiscent of a Scottish folk song, something probably done in honor of William Primrose.
Recording listened to: Davia Bender, viola, with the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Kegel on Edel Records (with viola works by Hindemith and Meyer)

14. Frank Martin, Ballad for viola, wind, harp, harpsichord and percussion [1972]
Frank Martin (1890 – 1974) was a Swiss composer, who lived a large part of his life in the Netherlands. He was born in Geneva where he studied with Joseph Lauber. In 1926 Martin established the Chamber Music Society of Geneva which, for the next ten years, he conducted; he was also a teacher at the Geneva Conservatory. Martin developed his mature style based on a personal interpretation of Schoenberg's twelve tone technique, without wholly abandoning tonality. He has a preference for lean textures and rhythmic vehemence. Some of Martin's most inspired music comes from his last decade, when he lived in Naarden, The Netherlands (since 1946). The viola concerto (called "ballad," the term Martin used for a series of six short concertos) is written for a very individual combination of wind, brass, percussion, harp and harpsichord. This instrumental group is at first used sparingly, but after a while typical Martinesque climaxes begin to intrude. Later on we also hear a section where the harp and harpsichord alone accompany a long viola solo, leading to an interesting sonority. The concerto ends with a sort of question mark in the lower brass. This is a forceful and impressive work.
Frank Martin website.
Recording listened to: Philip Dukes, viola, with The London Philharmonic conducted by Matthias Bamert on Chandos (all 6 ballads for soloist and orchestra by Martin)

[Portrait of Alfred Schnittke 
by Reginald Gray (1972) - Wikipedia]

15. Alfred Schnittke, Viola Concerto [1985]
Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998) was a Soviet composer whose early music showed a strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. His mature work is known for his - typically postmodern - polystylistic technique. In contrast, his late style is rather bleak and withdrawn. In the 1980s, Schnittke wrote three works for viola and orchestra; the first of these was the Viola Concerto from 1985, written for Yuri Bashmet. It is a desperate, bleak work filled with grotesque ironies. The concerto starts and ends with the musical signature of the name of its dedicatee. After a peroration by the viola in the short first movement, the second movement brings on the postmodern horses, in the form of a ghoulish waltz and Baroque style elements. The long final movement is contemplative. A stunning work, powerful and dramatic, that was written at the time Gorbachev came to power and artists, too, could have more freedom. One of the best viola concertos I have heard.
Recording listened to: Yuri Bashmet with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich on RCA Victor (with Thro Sonata by Schnittke)

16. Gia Kancheli, Mourned by the Wind, Liturgy for Viola and Orchestra [1988]
Gia Alexandrovich Kancheli (1935) is a Georgian composer, who since 1991 is resident in Western-Europe - now in Belgium. He was educated at the Georgian State Conservatory in Tbilisi and writes music in a very typical style that in the first place strikes listeners by its simplicity and meditative calmness. We also hear loud intonations by the full orchestra. Mourned by the Wind, for viola and orchestra, was composed in memory of a musicologist - Kancheli's fellow-Georgian Givi Ordzhonikidze. The work possesses a stark and haunting spirituality, with the viola set against both moments of stillness and passages of passionate declamation for the orchestra. It is music that in its meditative mood has a certain resemblance to other central European composers as Part and Gorecki, or the English composer Tavener.
Recording listened to:  Svyatoslav Belonogov, viola, with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fedor Glushchenko on Olympia (with Symphonies 1 & 7)

[Toru Takemitsu - Photo Wikipedia]

17. Toru Takemitsu, Viola Concerto "A String Around Autumn" [1989]
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was Japan's greatest 20th c. composer. Takemitsu taught himself composition by studying French masters as Debussy and Messiaen. He also became interested in musique concrete, serialism and the compositional philosophy of John Cage, although his music was pan-tonal rather than atonal. Takemitsu also wrote extensively on aesthetics and music theory. He created a delicate sound world uniquely his own and composed hundreds of works - he first became famous with Requiem for Strings in 1957. Takemitsu also scored over ninety films, often famous art films as Harakiri, Woman in the Dunes, Kaidan and Double Suicide, by not only using music but also silence - as in his other compositions. The viola concerto was commissioned by the Festival d'Automne in Paris as part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The title was based on a poem by Makoto Ooka and refers both to the name of the festival and the fact that a string instrument is used. Takemitsu called the concerto an "imaginary landscape," the soloist functions as the observer of a gorgeous autumn scene (autumn, with its red leaves and clear blue skies, is always beautiful in Japan). The musical texture may also suggest the static perfection of a Japanese garden. Interestingly, Takemitsu also wrote concert music for traditional Japanese instruments, as the shakuhachi and the biwa.
Recording listened to: Nobuko Imai, viola, with the Saito Kinen Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Philips (with November Steps and Eclipse for shakuhachi and biwa).
Written with some information gleaned from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)
Posts about classical music include:

September 13, 2013

"The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli (Stories behind paintings)

The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere) is a large-sized painting by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), made between 1482-1485, and kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (one of the oldest museums in the world).

This painting not only celebrates the birth of Venus, but also that of the modern Western world which arose from the rediscovery of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome: most women painted in the Middle Ages had been motherly Madonnas with fat babies, here we have a pagan goddess, the goddess of love - and she stands stark naked before us.

What do we see? 

Venus comes ashore, standing on the shell of the king scallop which would centuries later become the mark of a famous oil company. She is naked but one hand covers her bosom and the other, holding a tip of her long red hair, covers her pudenda (of which the wide-open scallop is the blatant Freudian symbol). Note that Venus' eyes are modestly cast downward, she does not stare the viewer in the face. She is clearly ashamed of her nudity. Behind her is the calm sea from which she was born in a rather curious way: Cronus had usurped the throne from his father Uranus by cutting off Uranus' testicles and throwing them into the ocean - and from these genitals in the sea Venus came forth. As she was also said to have been born from the foam of the waves, Botticelli has painted rather manieristic, frothy wavelets behind her.

There are two figures flying through the sky on the left side of the painting: Zephyr, the god of the west wind, borne aloft on large wings, holding his wife Chloris in his arms. He is blowing with round cheeks, and we see the wind issuing from his mouth - it caresses the long hair of Venus. In the Mediterranean, the west wind is the gentlest of winds, the harbinger of spring. Zephyr's wife Chloris was a nymph associated with flowers and new growth and sometimes equated with the goddess Flora, the deity of spring. In the painting we see violets (symbol of love) tumbling through the sky around Chloris and Zephyr, as if springing from their presence. The arrival of Venus is also the coming of spring.

To the right, already on the shore, stands a handmaid carrying a cloak to cover the nude deity. This one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons. The red cloak decorated with a pattern of the same violets that fly through the sky is realistically blowing in the wind. Behind the handmaid we see a luxurious forest of large trees with straight stems.

What is behind this great painting?
  • Although no paintings have come down to us, we know from written sources that "Venus Rising From the Sea" (called Venus Anadyomene) was a popular theme in the ancient world. A famous (lost) painting was ascribed to Apelles of Kos (4th c. BCE), who was said to have employed Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great, for his model. Elsewhere we find the suggestion that the idea of Venus rising from the sea was inspired by the ancient Greek hetaera (courtesan) Phryne, who in festival time often swam nude in the sea. 
  • Also the particular pose of Venus in Botticelli's painting is based on Classical precedent: that of the Venus of Knidos, which although lost, was copied many times. The original was made by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th c. BCE. The Medici possessed one of such copies (dating from the 1st c. BCE and today also in the Uffizi Galleries), and allowed Botticello to study it. The Venus of Knidos was called "Venus Pudica," or "modest Venus," because of her attempt to shyly cover her nakedness with her hand. The goddess is depicted in a fugitive, momentary pose, as if surprised in the act of emerging from the sea. Ironically, the asymmetrical pose serves to draw the eye to the very spot that is being hidden.
  • The theme of the painting is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, an important and popular work of Roman literature. In Botticelli's time this theme was also taken up by the Neoplatonic poet Agnolo Poliziano, who like Botticelli served at the Medici court. Neoplatonism tried to link Greek and Roman philosophy with Christianity. In the light of that philosophy, the painting represents the "birth of spiritual beauty as a driving force of life."
  • The Venus in Botticelli's painting represents the Italian Renaissance ideal of female beauty: red-haired, pale-skinned and voluptuous. There is a heated discussion among art historians whether she is based on a historical person, Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476), or not. Simonetta was the most beautiful woman of her age - and certainly of Florence - and her image was enhanced by her tragic early death from tuberculosis. At age 15 she had married Marco Vespucci and the couple became popular at court. The Vespucci's were related to Florence's ruling family, the Medicis, who commissioned the present work. Simonetta was called "The Unparalleled One," and Botticello seems to have been very much impressed by her beauty (he even asked to be buried at her feet), and he made several portraits of her. As the Venus-painting was made several years after her death it would be a posthumous tribute.
  • The Birth of Venus is a large format painting, 172.5 by 278.5 cm, the image of Venus is life-size and therefore all the more impressive. It was made on canvas (then a novelty) with tempera (a painting medium in which pigment is mixed with water-soluble glutinous materials such as egg yolk), and an expensive alabaster powder was used to make the colors brighter and more timeless. 
  • The creator, Sandro Botticelli, was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance. He was born in Florence in 1437 as the son of a tanner, and died in the same city in 1510. He was an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi. By 1470, Botticello had his own workshop. During his lifetime Botticello was one of the most acclaimed painters in Italy. He was invited to take part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and in his hometown he earned the important patronage of the Medici, the leading family of Florence. Although by the time of his death Botticelli's reputation was in decline, a complete reassessment has taken place since the 19th c. His work now is seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting. Among his best known works are The Birth of Venus,  Primavera and Venus and Mars.
  • The Medici family commissioned The Birth of Venus, including two other now famous paintings by Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur and Primavera (all now at the Uffizi). Family head Lorenzo the Magnificent may have given the commissions, but the paintings were meant for his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463-1503), whose Palazzo in the Via Larga they were to decorate - apparently in a room dedicated to his bride, Semiramide Appiano. Besides being an ode to Classical mythology and literature, via this commission Botticelli's masterwork also forms an homage to the wealthy Florentine family who commissioned the work: the reign of (spiritual) love comes to Florence thanks to the vast culture of the Medici.
[The Venus of Knidos -
Image Wikipedia]

Note: The early 20th c. Italian composer Ottorino Respighi in 1926 composed a suite in three parts called "Trittico botticelliano," illustrating three Botticelli paintings - the third part is about Venus Rising from the Sea. Respighi has managed to translate Botticelli's decorative lines into translucent musical textures. 

September 6, 2013

The Best Works for Oboe (Music review)

My favorite string instrument is the cello (see my posts about the Best Cello Concertos and Best Cello Sonatas), so you might suppose that I would opt for the clarinet among the woodwind. But the clarinet is too "fuzzy" for me, the instrument I prefer is the oboe with its clear, nasal tone. The oboe has two faces, which makes it all the more interesting: "snappy" when played in fast movements, and sweetly melancholic in slower pieces.

As the original name, hautbois ("high wood", which was corrupted as "hoboy" and then "oboe" in English) shows, the instrument originated in France. That was in the mid-17th c., when it developed out of its predecessor, the shawm, the typical instrument of street bands (and, at least in literature, shepherds). Although the exact place and date of origin are not known, the Philidor and Hotteterre families may have been involved, and of course the instrument probably had multiple inventors.

The oboe is played with a double reed. This is one of the features it borrowed from the shawm, together with its conical bore, but on the other hand it also departed significantly from the older instrument, for example in the circumstance that the player places his lips directly on the reed with no intervening pirouette (a small cylindrical piece of wood which acted as a support for the lips). This new oboe quickly spread throughout Europe.

There are about nine other members in the oboe family, differing in size and timbre, such as the oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia, which both have a lower and warmer tone. We often find them in the pastoral movements of Bach's cantatas. Another member of the oboe family is the cor anglais ("English horn"), which is neither English nor a horn. It is an tenor hobo which was invented in Silesia around 1720, based on the oboe da caccia - it also found its way into the modern orchestra.

The oboe gradually developed further, gaining more keys - the modern oboe was developed in the 1860s by the French Triebert family. As the pitch of the oboe is not affected by temperature or humidity, and the instrument is easily audible over other instruments, symphony orchestras tend to tune to an A provided by the principal oboist.

The oboe was extremely popular in the Baroque period, when many concertos, sonatas and other works were written for the versatile instrument. The first oboe concertos were probably written by Albinoni in 1715, but these were quickly followed by concertos and sonatas by other Italian composers, such as Marcello and Vivaldi, and Germans as Telemann, or the Bohemian Zelenka. The 1720s saw a real explosion of oboe works, and the instrument remained popular for many decades, as is seen in the Classical works by Dittersdorf and Mozart.

But the oboe dropped out of sight during the Romantic period, when among the woodwinds the clarinet and flute with their essentially romantic timbre were more popular. (What there is from the 19th c., such as the small concerto by Bertini, or the pieces by Kalliwoda, is mostly salon music, which I skip.) Until I researched this post, I never realized that the oboe as solo instrument was totally eclipsed in the Romantic period...

Happily, the oboe has made a strong comeback in modern times - the large number of works written in for example England is striking (Bax, Vaughan Williams, Rawsthorne, Alwyn, Berkeley, Rubbra, Jacob, Holst, Moeran, etc) although these are all small-scale, intimate pieces, even the concertos. Somewhat larger-scale works were written by Richard Strauss, Wolf-Ferrari and the Dutchman Voormolen with his Concerto for Two Oboes. There is also an interesting body of modern instrumental and chamber music for the oboe.

[Oboe from the Classical Period]

1. Alessandro Ignazio Marcello, Concerto for Oboe in D minor [1716]
Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747) was a versatile Venetian nobleman, philosopher, mathematician and musician, who also painted and dabbled in literature. As the son of a senator, he led the comfortable life of a dilettante in an imposing palazzo on the Canal Grande. In that residence, he organized weekly concerts, where also his own compositions were performed. The present oboe concerto is Alessandro Marcello's most famous work, one of his twelve Concerti a Cinque, published in Amsterdam in 1716 by Jeanne Roger. The fine work was so much appreciated by Bach that he adapted it for keyboard. It was for a long time wrongly attributed to Alessandro's brother, Benedetto Marcello, who was in fact a more prolific composer. The first movement is an andante called "spiccato," which points at a style of playing a bowed stringed instrument in which the bow bounces slightly off the strings - or in general, any music which is played in that manner. The adagio of the concerto seems to be popular at wedding ceremonies, and indeed the oboe sings in rather ecstatic tones. The final presto scurries along like a mass of excitedly babbling people.
Recording listened to: Bruce Haynes, baroque oboe, with the Orchestra of the 18th Century directed by Frans Bruggen on Pro Arte. Authentic instruments and playing style.

2. Jan Dismas Zelenka, Sonata V in F major for Two Oboes with Obbligato Bassoon and Basso Continuo, ZWV 181 [1715-16]
Zelenka (1679–1745) was the most important Czech baroque composer, admired for its harmonic inventiveness and counterpoint. He studied in Prague but spent most of life in Dresden, where he was employed in the court orchestra. Between 1715 and 1719 he was allowed to travel for study to Vienna and Venice. As musicians at the Dresden court were not allowed to have their music published, Zelenka was forgotten for 200 years - the modern rediscovery started in the 1950s, and now we tend to agree with the judgement of Bach and Telemann, who regarded Zelenka as one of the most important composers of their time. Instrumental music represents only a small part of Zelenka's output, as he mainly wrote large-scale sacred music. The present sonata for 2 oboes forms part of a group of six, which sets standards of overall high virtuosity. The sonatas are in Sonata di chiesa form, except the fifth one, which has three movements fast-slow-fast. In the fast movements, oboe and bassoon are employed in their most expressive and technical capabilities; the slow movement has a fittingly sweet melancholy.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger and Maurice Bourgue, oboes, a.o., on Archiv (complete six trio sonatas for two oboes and obbligato bassoon)

3. Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto in A major for Oboe d'Amore, Strings and Continuo TW 51:A2 [1717 or later]
The German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) is one of the most prolific composers in musical history. Much of his huge output is still little known and only slowly being rediscovered. It is of surprisingly high quality and great variety. Telemann managed to write in several styles and he always was at the forefront of new musical tendencies. From 1721 to the end of his life he settled down in Hamburg, where he was musical director of the city's five main churches. Telemann wrote about one hundred instrumental concertos, mostly for wind instruments. His concertos are usually in four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast. The oboe d'amore used in this concerto is somewhat larger than the normal oboe and possesses a warmer tone; it is so to speak the mezzo-soprano of the oboe family, between the oboe (soprano) and the cor anglais (alto). Telemann wrote three concertos for this instrument. The first slow movement of the concerto in A major is a beautiful pastoral siciliano, and the melancholic third movement a chaconne for solo instrument and basso continuo, framed by the tutti. In the finale Telemann presents an interesting set of strophic variations. The oboe d'amore fell out of fashion at the end of the 18th c., which is to be regretted as its tranquil and warm tone make it rather special.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger, Oboe d'amore, with Camerata Bern directed by Thomas Füri on Archiv Galleria (with oboe concertos by Graun and Krebs)

4. Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Oboe in A minor, RV 461 [1720s]
The great Baroque composer Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote more than 500 concertos; about 350 are for solo instrument and strings, of which again 230 for violin; the others are for cello and viola d'amore, or for wind instruments like the bassoon, oboe, flute, or recorder. About 40 concertos are double concertos for two instruments and 30 are for three or more instruments. Vivaldi wrote 15 concertos for the oboe, and RV 461 in A minor may well be the finest. It is a work on which Vivaldi seems to have lavished special care. The accompaniments to the solo sections are imaginatively conceived, employing a variety of scorings, and the thematic material of the solo sections is related in an effective way to that of the tutti sections. The concerto probably dates from the 1720s, Vivaldi's third and mature period, which was marked by high productivity.
Recording listened to: David Reichenberg, oboe, with The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock on Archiv (with 5 other Vivalidi concertos under the general title "Alla Rustica"). Authentic instruments and playing style.

5. Tomaso Albinoni, Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op. 9, No. 2 [1722]
Albinoni (1671-1751) was the first composer to publish oboe concertos: his Op. 7 of 1715 contains 8 concertos for single oboe, and 8 for two oboes. So he would have headed this list, were it not that I have selected one of his Opus 9 concertos, which were written in 1722. These later concertos are longer and more richly elaborated. Their greatest strength lies in the lyrical writing for the solo instrument. The adagio of op. 9, No. 2 is a long-breathed cantilena of the oboe set against an unchanging background of undulating violin semiquavers - infinitely more beautiful than the notorious and spurious "Adagio of Albinoni" (in reality composed by a 20th c. musicologist). About Albinoni's oboe concertos, see my previous post The Concertos of Tomaso Albinoni.
Recording listened to: Anthony Robson, oboe, with the Collegium Musicum 90 conducted by Simon Standage on Chandos (with other oboe concertos by Albinoni). Authentic instruments and playing style.

6. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Oboe Concerto in E Flat Major, Wq 165 [1765]
Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) was the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He studied law at universities in Leipzig and Frankfurt and in 1740 he became Court Harpsichordist at the court in Berlin of Frederick the Great, a position he would fulfill for almost thirty years. He was one of the best keyboard players of his time. In 1768 CPE Bach succeeded Telemann as Cantor in Hamburg, a position he would enjoy for the last twenty years of his life. CPE Bach was in the first place a keyboard virtuoso and his two oboe concertos were originally written as harpsichord concertos, before he reworked them for the oboe. The fast movements waver between the Late-Baroque and the Pre-Classical period. The first movement of the concerto in E flat major possesses an energetic rhythm that evokes the French style. The slow movement is the musical center of gravity - it is a grandiose funeral threnody. The last movement is characterized by CPE Bach's characteristic chromatic style.
Recording listened to: Ku Ebbinge, oboe, with The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra conducted by Ton Koopman on Erato (with oboe concerto in B flat major, sonata in G minor). Authentic instruments and playing style.

7. August Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in G major [1765-69]
The Austrian composer Dittersdorf (1739–1799) was born and educated in Vienna, where he also played as violinist in the orchestra of the Burgtheater. From 1765 to 1769 he worked for the Prince-Archbishop's court in Grosswardein in Hungary, as successor of Michael Haydn. After that, Dittersdorf became Kapellmeister in Johannisberg. But despite his faraway posts, he kept in contact with Vienna, where many of his larger works were premiered. Dittersdorf produced fifty operas, four oratorios, masses, more than a hundred symphonies, a variety of concertos and chamber music. Revered by church and aristocracy, the career of Dittersdorf in its heyday even overshadowed that of Haydn and Mozart, but at the end of his life he was already largely forgotten. That is difficult to understand when you hear his music now, he certainly must rank as one of the most important representatives of Viennese Classicism. Dittersdorf composed six oboe concertos (one of which is for oboe d'amore). The concerto in G major stands with both legs in the golden age of Viennese Classicism, an elegant work that deserves to be heard.
Recording listened to: Heinz Holliger, oboe, with Camerata Bern conducted by Thomas Füri on Archiv (with other concertos and symphonies by "the early Vienna School"). Also available on Hungaroton (complete oboe concertos by Dittersdorf).

8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C major, K314 [1777]
This concerto is better known in its version for flute (in D), but the oboe version that was discovered in 1920 in the Salzburg Mozarteum is the original one. Mozart wrote the concerto for the North-Italian oboe virtuoso Giuseppe Ferlendis, but it was also frequently played by the superb Mannheim oboist Friedrich Ramm. (Mozart made the flute version as he had a commission from the Dutch flutist Ferdinand De Jean, and through time pressure only managed to write one original flute concerto.) Despite the warm response the concerto received in Mozart's day, the oboe score later sank into oblivion. The first movement has witty repartees as in an opera; the slow movement is a straightforward aria for the oboe against a lovely cantilena in the strings; and the finale is a cheerful rondo on a theme Mozart liked well enough to use again, for the aria "Welche wonne, welche Lust" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The reason this concerto in the first place came down to us as a flute concerto is the above mentioned circumstance that in the Romantic period, oboe concertos were unfortunately "out." Mozart also wrote an oboe quartet (K 370).
Recording listened to: Michel Piguet, oboe, with The Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre. Authentic instruments and playing style.

9. François Devienne, Oboe Sonata in C Op. 71 No. 3 [1799]
Born as the 14th child of a saddle maker, Devienne (1759 – 1803) was a French composer and professor for flute at the Paris Conservatory. He gained a European reputation as prodigious composer in various genres and for all manner of combinations. His music is characterized by classical grace and melodic originality. Devienne published 12 sonatas for oboe and basso continuo (Op. 70 and 71), probably in 1799. All works are in three movements. The oboe is dominant, the bass part has been relegated to a minor role. So compared with the duo sonatas of Mozart, formally these works are somewhat backward looking (but that is nothing strange - also Haydn's piano trios of the 1790s are "backward looking"). And the vivacity of the music makes everything good. The sonata in C Op. 71.3 starts with an allegro in sonata form; the second movement is an expressive aria; and the finale is a graceful sets of variations getting increasingly more virtuoso.
Recording listened to: Burkhard Glaetzner, oboe, with Christine Schornsheim, pianoforte, and Siegfried Pank, cello, on Brilliant Classics (with three more oboe sonatas by Devienne). Authentic instruments and playing style.

[Modern oboe - image Wikipedia]

10. Arnold Bax, Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet [1922]
The English composer Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953) blended elements of romanticism and impressionism in his music, often with influences from Celtic or Irish literature and landscape. His scores are noted for their complexity and colorfulness. The Oboe Quintet was written just after Bax completed his First Symphony and is quintessential Bax in his Irish style. The mood of the rhapsodic first movement is predominantly dark. The slow movement is an atmospheric lento, starting with a long introduction in which the strings alone play a gorgeous tune. In the finale the composer brushes aside his somber mood and introduces a wild Irish dance, on a tune of Bax's own invention. The texture of the quartet is very rich, so it not surprising that it was later orchestrated by Sir John Barbirolli as a Concerto for Oboe.
Recording listened to: Sarah Francis, oboe, with the English String Quartet on Chandos (with oboe quartets by Holst, Jacob and Moeran)

11. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Idillo - Concertino in A major for Oboe and Small Orchestra [1932]
With a German father and Italian mother, Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) grew up in two cultures, as symbolized by his name in which he combined those of both parents. He was born in Venice and is buried there, but he lived much of his life in Munich and Salzburg. In the first place active as opera composer, he was most popular in the years before the Great War. Wolf-Ferrari also wrote a number of lyrical orchestral works, among which concertos for oboe and for cor anglais. The oboe concerto is written in a warm, late-Romantic style, but the structure is neo-classical. The concerto is in four movements: the fast movements sparkle, while the adagio is the emotional center of the work. Unbelievable that such a delightful work can be forgotten...
Recording listened to: Andrea Tenaglia, oboe, with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma directed by Franceso La Vecchia on Naxos (with concertos for cor anglais and bassoon)

12. Alexander Voormolen, Concerto for Two Oboes and Orchestra [1933]
The Dutch composer Alexander Voormolen (1895-1980) studied composition with Johan Wagenaar in Utrecht. In 1916 he went to Paris where he studied with Albert Roussel and also became acquainted with Ravel, who supported him. Voormolen was a Francophile and his music stands in the French rather than in the German tradition. Later on, Voormolen searched for a true Dutch musical style, as in his large piano work Tableaux des Pays-Bas and the Baron Hop Suites. From 1923 Voormolen settled in The Hague, where he became librarian of the Royal Conservatory. He also was music reviewer for an important Dutch newspaper. The present double concerto was written for the Dutch oboist Jaap Stotijn and his son Haakon, who premiered the work in 1935 in The Hague. The score is very virtuoso and full of spirit and also humor. There are hints at popular dance, while the concerto is broadly neo-classical. The slow movement is a beautiful arioso. The concerto was very popular in its time, and indeed, it is one of the best 20th c. oboe concertos I know.
Recording listened to: Pauline Oostenrijk and Hans Roerade, oboes, with the Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Matthias Bamert on Chandos (with Voormolen's Baron Hop Suites 1& 2)

13. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings [1944]
Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) was an English composer who worked in a great variety of genres, including film music - his interesting double name without a hyphen is of Welsh origin. Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and later Parry. Here he also befriended fellow-student Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams early on became interested in folk song, which he collected. As a central figure in British music he wrote 9 symphonies, several large oratorios, and concerts not only for the piano, but also for rarely used solo instruments as the tuba. His oboe concerto was written for soloist Léon Goossens in 1944. It is a typically English pastoral piece and is divided into three movements: a lightweight first movement, rondo pastorale, then a short minuet and musette, and a scherzo which is the longest and weightiest movement, although it ends on a wistful note. The entire concerto is suffused with a gentle melancholy.
Recording listened to: David Theodore, oboe, with The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson on Chandos (with 3rd symphony)

14. Richard Strauss, Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra in D major [1945]
The late-Romantic German composer Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) was in the first place known for his operas, his songs and his tone poems. He was a subtle orchestrator, who wrote in an advanced harmonic style. His output of concertante works was also fairly extensive. The most famous of these are the two concertos for horn, a violin concerto, a burleske for piano and orchestra, a duet concertino for bassoon and clarinet, and an oboe concerto. The Oboe Concerto in D was written towards the end of Strauss' life, during a period often called "his Indian summer" - he was over 80 years old when he wrote it! The oboe concerto is a neo-classical work with clear thematic analogies to 18th c. music - although typical Straussian harmonies are not absent. The concerto is in four movements and full if wit. Among the ruins of WWII, Mozart and Viennese Classicism must have appeared like a bright light in the surrounding darkness.
Recording listened to: Martin Gabriel, Oboe, with the Wiener Philharmoniker, directed by Andre Previn, on Deutsche Grammophon

15. Alan Rawsthorne, Concerto for Oboe and Strings [1947]
Rawsthorne (1905 - 1971) graduated from The Royal Manchester College of Music, and after first working as a pianist, from the 1930s he followed a career as freelance composer. Rawsthorne possesses a highly distinctive musical voice. He wrote an impressive number of symphonic works, nine concertos, and a large body of chamber music. His oboe concerto was dedicated to Evelyn Rothwell, the wife of Sir John Barbirolli. The first movement, with its slow and majestic opening, is modeled on the style of the French overture from the Baroque period. There is an animated middle section, before the opening is restated in a plaintive way. The middle movement is an allegretto, with a sad but tender tone - an introspective piece of music. The last movement is a vivace that with figures based on the jig and the tarantella dances towards its close.
Recording listened to: Stephane Rancourt, oboe, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (with cello concerto and Symphonic Studies) 

16. Francis Poulenc, Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op. 185 [1962]
The French composer Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was a member of the group Les Six (with Honegger, Milhaud and others). His music, which covers all genres and is always tonal, can be mischievous and witty, but also serenely mystical. At the end of his life Poulenc wrote three sonatas for wind instruments. The sonata for oboe and piano dates from 1962 and is dedicated to the memory of Sergei Prokofiev. It is a sad and lonely work, a sort of valediction. The three movements are called Elégie, Scherzo and Déploration, a slow-fast-slow scheme. In the last movement, to express his mournful feelings, Poulenc uses the extremes of the oboe. It was also the last piece Poulenc wrote before his death early the next year. The sonata was performed posthumously in 1963, with Pierre Pierlot as oboist.
Recording listened to: Maurice Bourgue, oboe, and Pascal Roge, piano, on Decca (with the sonatas for flute and clarinet as well as the trio and sextet)

Written with information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)
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