25 September 2008

Lisa Gerrard’s Chamber Music: Tribal World-Music, Wordless Ambient Hymns

Lisa Gerrard

W   hat the music I love expresses to me is not thought too indefinite to put into words but, on the contrary, too definite.”
  —  Felix Mendelssohn, letter to Marc-André Souchay, 15-OCT-1842.
W   hen you make strange music like we do, there aren’t many people with whom you can talk about it. When [Lisa Gerrard] says, ‘Music is sacred,’ try to explain that to a ‘normal’ human being.”
  —  Klaus Schulze, Farscape.
Lisa Gerrard, born in Melbourne in 1961, is a musician, singer and composer who was a co-founder of the group ‘Dead Can Dance’ with former music partner Brendan Perry. Gerrard’s versatile vocal range (contralto to mezzo-soprano) and song-writing are what she’s best known for, but she also provides instrumentals on many of her recordings, most frequently playing yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer). Since the break-up of ‘Dead Can Dance’ she has been doing solo work plus selective collaboration—for most of the past ten years. Gerrard received a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination for the score for the 2000 film ‘Gladiator’, her collaboration with Hans Zimmer. Her soundtrack for the 2003 film ‘Whalerider’ was also widely acclaimed.

The release (about 2 months ago) of her wonderful new CD ‘FarScape’—ethereal original space-music chamber compositions, accompanied by German keyboardist Klaus Schulze—led me to recently revisit her work.

Klaus Schulze and Lisa Gerrard
But, in fact, it was a series of emails yesterday in response to the previous two CMT blog posts about watery, atmospheric character pieces—Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 and Saint-Saëns’s, Carnival of the Animals VII, ‘Aquarium’—that caused me to key up Gerrard’s cover of the larghetto aria in Handel’s opera ‘Serse’, from Gerrard’s 1995 CD ‘The Mirror Pool’.

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Gerrard and John Bonnar, George Friderick Handel, Serse (Xerxes) HWV 40 [1738], ‘Larghetto’ aria [‘Largo’], 1.2MB MP3]

L isa has an incredible voice. She can go down so low! When I ask her ‘Where do you get this from?’ she tells me about [Tuvan throat singers]. She can sing two voices at the same time using her belly and the overtones using chest voice.”
  —  Klaus Schulze, Farscape.
Chamber works on that recording were arranged by John Bonnar and performed by members of the Victorian Philharmonic Orchestra in Melbourne.

Having now immersed myself in that disc, how could I not notice/remember ‘Sanvean’!

    [50-sec clip, Lisa Gerrard and members of Victoria Phil, Andrew Claxton, ‘Sanvean’, 1.2MB MP3]

Andrew Claxton
Sanvean’, composed in 1993 by Andrew Claxton, has been used on many film soundtracks, and between 1998 and 2003 served as theme music for the U.K. NHS MMR immunization campaign. Over the past 15 years it is increasingly frequently used for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. Soprano Sarah Brightman recorded ‘Sanvean’ with the London Symphony Orchestra early in 2008. Have a listen to a clip from that…

    [50-sec clip, Sarah Brightman and members of LSO, Andrew Claxton, ‘Sanvean’, 1.2MB MP3]

The main point of my posting this today is to share with you my delight at ‘re-discovering’ how much I had enjoyed Lisa and her DCD and earlier solo work—in the belief that you, too, may like being reminded of Lisa Gerrard and enjoy revisiting these things as well.

But secondary reasons for posting are:
  1. to draw your attention to the new 2-disc recording of Lisa with Klaus Schulze;
  2. to provide a link (below) to Andrew Claxton and point to Brightman and others who are doing ‘covers’ of his classical vocal writing;
  3. to suggest that these miniatures might be intriguing to insert into your own ensemble’s programs, or to use as encore material;
  4. to initiate a thread on extended/exotic singing technique (including overtone-singing, wordless singing, countertenor, etc.);
  5. to remind us that authenticity is what really matters, and that the Truly Authentic is sometimes Exotic/Esoteric/Extreme; and
  6. to continue the previous CMT thread on ‘atmospheric’ chamber music, in response to those of you who emailed me about this topic.
A common piece of advice given to performers has tended to be along the lines of ‘make the piece your own.’ This is similar to the notion of Eigentlichkeit in Heidegger. To be eigentlich for Heidegger is not simply to be authentic but to ‘be yourself’. In one sense, both of these bits of advice (‘make it your own’ and ‘be yourself’) are perfectly sensible and even desirable. But one of the difficulties that performers have in approaching a piece of music that is unfamiliar is that it is difficult to ‘feel at home’ with the piece... When Heidegger says that ‘understanding is either authentic, arising out of one’s own Self as such, or inauthentic,’ it is hard to distinguish this sense of authenticity from Kant’s account of autonomy. In both cases, the Self is not merely supposed to be the principal but the sole determining factor.”
  —  Bruce Benson, Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 165.
The beauty and expressiveness of Lisa Gerrard’s voice—particularly with the wordless, ambient, hymn-like pieces—are unique in the corpus of vocal chamber music. Regarding #5 above, the wordlessness defamiliarizes us and, consequently, our ordinary linguistic habits for understanding vocal music are put on holiday. The timbral changes associated with wordfulness are all there, the gestural semantic representations are there, but not the veneer of words. We perceive the meaning, but with only pre-verbal, timbral, and gestural syntax elements! We are treated to different sources of interpretation—the ordinary surface of word-processes stripped away, the once-subliminal becomes the new liminal.

Those of us who use Finale® or other programs for our composing have of course the routine experience of the sampled-waveform libraries of ‘ahhs’ and other vowels, for the instant playback of the pieces we work on. So the textures of wordless voices that regular people so seldom hear—we hear synthetic incarnations of these every day, and they ‘grow’ on us.

L isa had only two conditions: huge reverb spaces and no headphones. Now, I’m a lover of reverb, but this was almost a bit too much even for me.”
  —  Klaus Schulze, Farscape.
However, to hear live performances and recordings like Lisa’s: this is distinctly unusual. And highly authentic! Not many chamber music presenters organize programs of ‘wordless’ vocal material; not many chamber ensembles with singers offer ‘wordless’ repertoire. But there is no reason why that situation should not change. For its novelty and exoticness, it’s plausible that there would be an eager market for this...

W   e had recorded about five hours of music straight without any breaks… Lisa sang everything only once. There were only maybe two minutes that could not be used. She only said, ‘Well, at 10:22 on that one track you must cut about 30 seconds, as the intonation there was not precise.’ When Lisa works, she is completely captured in her own world.”
  —  Klaus Schulze, Farscape.
Tell you what: I will begin to assemble a list of wordless vocal music and put it up on CMT... Shostakovich’s ‘Songs on Verses by Dolmatovsky’ (for voice, wordless chorus & piano) Op. 86 comes to mind. Not instrumental ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ (Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, [Opp. 19,30,38,53,62,67,85,102; 1830-1845]) but vocal music that is wordless. Charles Alkan, Anton Rubinstein, Ignaz Moscheles, Edvard Grieg? John Gibson’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’? Chaya Czernowin’s ‘Pnima... ins Innere’? Wolfgang Rihm’s ‘Donaueschinger Musiktage 2006 Etudes’? Other ‘New Music’ vocal compositions that are wordless lieder? Please feel free to email me or add a comment below if there are some wordless vocal chamber music pieces that you especially admire.

And we will then have more words on ‘wordless’ repertoire.

Thank you, Lisa and Klaus, for this nice new ‘FarScape’ and for your earlier atmospherics and spontaneity, which continue to please and inspire after all this time.

S pontaneity matters a lot. Many people think good music has to do with sweat and hard work, which must be continual and last for months. My opinion, however, is that if this is the case the music is [sure to be] bad.”
  —  Klaus Schulze, Farscape.

24 September 2008

More Encores: Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 in E Major


Fiercely energised yet superfine, [Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s] performances are not for those with comfortable ‘drawing-room’ notions of Debussy.”
  —  Gramophone Magazine, JUL-2008.
F rançois-Joel Thiollier’s soft-grained virtuosity taps into the music’s alluring sonorities and harmonic beauty, bringing out plenty of color with no more aid from the sustain pedal than necessary. As a technician, Thiollier doesn’t offer the bedrock security that typifies Pollini’s double notes, Uchida’s firmly-centered rhythms, or Gieseking’s utterly-even fingerings in ‘Pour Les Huits Doigts’. Yet while his timid chord-to-octave leaps in the daunting 12th etude slow down when the going gets tough, Thiollier compensates with as sexy and curvaceous a middle section as you’ll ever hear. He also plays the three-against-two rhythm during the opening etude’s introduction as-written, rather than slightly rushing the right-hand triplet as nearly everyone else does... Thiollier’s gentle touch and keen ear for nuance also inform the sundry short works filling out this disc.”
  —  Jed Distler, Grammophone Magazine.
I’m not quite sure why the previous CMT post elicited a flurry of responses/requests, regarding ‘atmospheric’ miniatures. Anyhow, here is another favorite of mine, a solo piano one.

    [50-sec clip, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Debussy, ‘Arabesque No. 1’, 0.9MB MP3]

    [60-sec clip, François-Joel Thiollier, Debussy, ‘Arabesque No. 1’, 1.2MB MP3]

François-Joel Thiollier studied in France with Robert Casadesus and faculty of the Paris Conservatoire and with Sascha Gorodnitzki at the Juilliard School of Music. He won eight Grands Prix in international piano competitions. His recordings include the complete piano music of Debussy, the complete piano music of Ravel, and works by de Falla, d’Indy, and Franck. In 2003, Thiollier was named Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was a student of Pierre Sancan at the Paris Conservatoire, as well as Alexander Edelman and Dimitri Bashkirov. He has won Grans Prix in various international competitions, including the International Beethoven Competition in Cologne in 1986, the Honens International Piano Competition in Canada in 1992, and the Steven de Groote Chamber Music Prize at the Van Cliburn Competition. With a style that some critics have called ‘mercurial’, Bavouzet has performed with many international orchestras. In 2002 he performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher, and in 2003 he appeared with the Berliner Sinfonie Orchester. He is presently with Orchestre de Paris and Professor in the Piano Department of the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold, Germany.

Juxtaposing these two clips gives a good idea of the performance possibilities. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s version averages a faster tempo, but with wider variations than Thiollier’s. And the texture Bavouzet creates in this delicate piece exhibits a more ‘restrained’ pianissimo control than Thiollier’s, but Bavouzet alternates between understatement and exuberant reverie, and the sense of Bavouzet’s account is more one of solitary reminiscence—compared to Thiollier’s recording, which comes across as more ‘story-telling-to-intimate-partner’ rather than ‘solitary-meditation-to-onesself’. Your possibilities for reasonable tempi, accents, dynamics, and balances are endless—as illustrated by these two masterful examples.

The balance of the ‘3-against-2’, RH vs. LH, is risky—heck, the entire piece is so delicate that it’s quite a ‘gauntlet’ to run, aesthetically.


Debussy, Arabesque No. 1 motif, ‘3-against-2’ RH-LH rhythm
I am fascinated by Debussy’s ability to use tones and sounds to paint the colours of nature and convey its moods registering all its nuances of varying light, the elusiveness and boundlessness of it all.”
  —  Marie Bengtsson.

Nash Ensemble: Atmospherics and Encores

 Nash Ensemble London

O  ur piano quintet is looking for new ideas for encore pieces. Any suggestions?”
  —  Anonymous.
The usual objective is a sparkling, novel, jewel-like ‘character piece’ that is shorter than 3 minutes in length and that is ‘approachable’ and does not make heavy demands of the listener. It should read like pungent microfiction. Additionally, you want something that conveys an intense presence—show-stopping emotionality.

One serious option is to treat the encore as a ‘tag’ or a synoptic ‘capstone’ for your program—melding with the other pieces. You choose for an encore a character piece that is light and simple, something composed about the same time as other pieces on the program and preferrably by someone whose style and compositional methods and worldview are coherent with the rest of the program. If it has those features, it can serve as a ‘tag’, and its tagness/epilogiality will be immediately evident to the listeners.

A whimsical option that aims at surprise is to choose something wholly unexpected (a polka or mazurka, if the rest of your program has been heavy going) or something that embodies a counterintuitive, dramatic contrast against the other pieces (much slower or faster tempo; different articulation or timbre)—possibly composed in a different period or by someone of disparate worldview and methods, yet arriving at a similar result or addressing a similar compositional challenge as the other pieces had done.

You can go for drop-dead flash virtuosity. You can tug on the audience members’ nostalgia. You can ‘plug’ your most recent recording or an up-coming performance with a short selection. You can capsulize your ensemble’s namesake [composer] if you’re one of those eponymously-named ensembles, provided your eponymic was thoughtful enough to write a short, sweet piece. And so on.

In any case, a good encore piece should be the musical equivalent of a bespoke chocolate truffle. [The foregoing was just a brain-dump for the anonymous question-asker (and for others who struggle with similar challenges), on ‘How We Search for Suitable Encore Pieces’.]

For sheer bon-bon-ness, you might try Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals VII, ‘The Aquarium’.

S  aint-Saëns] invents various kinds of musical masquerade and cross dressing. Furthermore, many aspects of the work suggest that it is a musical farce to be put on by the very people who are supposed to get [the jokes], evoking the spirit of carnival as described by Bakhtin... [The] musical depictions demand that the instrumentalists performing the piece impersonate themselves as ‘characters’ in the salon, just as the instruments they play represent particular animals. Essential to the work is this kind of performing ‘about’ performance, a notion that in effect literally materializes immaterial aspects of music such as melody and timbre and allows Saint-Saëns to subvert the Romantic surface-depth paradigm by taking up instrumental materiality as one possible ‘substance’ to be revealed within the context of late nineteenth century chamber music.”
  —  Erica Scheinberg.
Carnival of the Animals’ nominally is a set of orchestral character pieces, each of which is meant to describe a particular animal, usually by mimicking the sounds it makes or characterizing the way it moves or carries itself. But, as musicologist Erica Scheinberg has written, it contains many ‘inside jokes’ about composers and music. There are passages mocking Offenbach’s ‘Can-Can’, wry liberties taken with Berlioz’s ‘Dance of the Sylphs’, poking fun at Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, mocking the turgidness of several Rossini arias, parodying then-current dance-hall tunes, and mocking Saint-Saens’s ‘Danse Macabre’.

It is extremely ‘meta’—today, just as it was during Saint-Saëns’s lifetime—and so is just waiting, ready to serve your own meta-purposes!

What’s more, ‘Carnival of the Animals’ has for many years been a prime vehicle for music outreach and education programs for kids (see, for example, this, from a kids’ program at Music Institute of Chicago). Consequently, performance of the piece triggers for many adults today intense and instantaneous memories of their musical childhood—of everything that has led them now to be sitting in their concert hall seats listening to you. This is a bonus that you cannot get with just any old encore selection—instant [Freudian] flashback and epiphany. To be honest, my own response to these pieces is like this—primitive and immediate, as though I were five years old once more. That alone is enough to make these Saint-Saëns movements good encore material—and it exemplifies some of the qualities that you might look for in other suitable material.

The 7th movement, ‘The Aquarium’, is wonderfully atmospheric. For the image of water splashing (brighter, compared to deep rumbling of the sea in the cello part and the flutey undulations) we have the glass harmonica’s and two pianos’ (or glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, or small cymbals) movements. A realistic evocation of moving water involves varying and controlling the dynamics on a short time-scale and the contrary-direction voice-leading in the different parts. Irregular intervals represent the erratic swimming of fish. Saint-Saëns creates florid kinesthetic/synaesthetic ‘visual-acoustic’ parallels.

Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces Op.16. No.3 (Faben) likewise convey ‘visual-acoustic’ parallels, and likewise mostly via short time-scale timbre changes. The Five Orchestral Pieces Op.16. No.3 (Faben) is sometimes translated to English as ‘Color Music’, ‘Morning on the Traunsee’ and ‘Summer Morning at a Lake’ by authors like Boretz and Cone. The musical progressions move in a slow and undulating manner throughout, which is similar to the ‘quivering reflection of the sun on a sheet of water’ (Dahlhaus, 1989). Schoenberg acoustically mimics the changing light on the waves by the changing timbre of instruments; the colors of the changing brightness lie in the differing timbres of the instruments. Saint-Saëns’s ‘Aquarium’ is like this, although the voice-leading in the Saint-Saëns’s string parts represents, I think, rays of light filtering down to the depths, from the point of view of the fish. The flute and pianos and glass harmonica manifest most of the surface watery features, including the sparkly play of light up top.

Insofar as ‘Aquarium’ has been used in many film soundtracks, it has the added advantage of being especially familiar to general audience members (compared with other of the ‘Carnival of the Animals’ movements). The Nash Ensemble has a particularly nice rendering of ‘Aquarium’.

    [50-sec clip, Nash Ensemble, Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals VII, Aquarium, 1.5MB MP3]

The Nash’s octet version does include the flute and glass harmonica and two pianos as-scored by Saint-Saëns. But the glass harmonica is out of practical reach for most ensembles and, in any event, the instrument does not travel easily—delicate; risky. Most of the time, the orchestral incarnations of the piece have a celesta or glockenspiel or xylophone substituting for the exotic glass harmonica. And, anyhow, the anonymous emailer in the blockquote above said her/his ensemble are a piano quintet; you are not going to bring out a flute or other players to participate in an encore when the rest of your program was straight piano quintet. Right. So is there a published arrangement of this Saint-Saëns piece for piano quintet? No. So improvise one!

Here’s one way: take the string parts from the original octet score, and take the Lucien Garban reduction of ‘Aquarium’ for solo piano and put them together. Fine-sounding instant piano quintet!

Yes, some of the spectral qualities that the glass harmonica or celesta add go by the boards. If that disappoints you, then improvise some flourishes in the upper register of the piano. The Garban transcription is tough enough by itself, so your efforts to accessorize it into something even more virtuosic will be all the more dazzling. (N.B.—Whether you improvise or leave it as-is—the string parts and the solo piano reduction—the piano’s doubling of the strings does risk trampling on the string parts, so you’ll need to rehearse with care, to make sure you’re achieving a good balance.)

Yes, the first-piano part descending ‘ten-on-one’ and ‘eight-on-one’ ostinato, while the second-piano plays ‘six-on-one’, is lost in the Garban transduction to solo piano. (After all, not many human beings can totally decouple the right-hand rhythmically from the left-hand.) So some of you purists reading this blog post may object strongly to my idea of a piano quintet adaptation of ‘Aquarium’. That’s fine. If the sacrilege is too great, don’t do it. But if you try it and it ‘works’ for you, more power to you!

Tempi of various ensembles’ performances of ‘Aquarium’ vary widely, with performance times ranging from 1:50 to 2:40. In other words, your effect can be ethereal/dreamy or near-demonic, depending on your taste. You can be over-the-top lyrical; or conjuring and fantastical; or subdued and meditative; or ironical; or elegantly benign and charming—you choose! The insider jokeness and transgressiveness that were intended by Saint-Saëns provide you a very long interpretive ‘leash’ with this piece.

You may want to consider how such an atmospheric piece would ‘fit’ with other program elements from the piano quintet literature:
  • Elfrida Andrée: Piano Quintet in E minor (1865)
  • Anton Arensky: Piano Quintet in D major, Op. 51 (1900)
  • Béla Bartók: Piano Quintet (1904)
  • Arnold Bax: Piano Quintet in G minor (1915)
  • Amy Beach: Piano Quintet
  • Franz Berwald: Piano Quintets No. 1 in C minor and No. 2 in A major (1857)
  • Ernest Bloch: Piano Quintets No. 1 (1923) and No. 2 (1957)
  • Alexander Borodin: Piano Quintet in C minor (1862)
  • Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864)
  • Frank Bridge: Piano Quintet in D minor (1905, revised 1912)
  • Ernő Dohnányi: Piano Quintets No. 1, Op. 1 (1895) and No. 2, Op. 26 (1914)
  • Antonín Dvořák: Piano Quintets No. 1, Op. 5 (1872) and No. 2, Op. 81 (1887)
  • Edward Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (1918)
  • George Enescu: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 29 (1940)
  • Louise Farrenc: Piano Quintets No. 1, Op. 30, and No. 2, Op. 31 (both with double bass)
  • Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 89 (1905) and No. 2, Op. 115 (1921)
  • Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet (1985)
  • César Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor, M. 7 (1879)
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler: Piano Quintet in C major (1935)
  • Hermann Goetz: Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 16 (with double bass; 1874)
  • Otar Gordeli: Piano Quintet (1950)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina: Piano Quintet (1957)
  • Reynaldo Hahn: Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor (1921)
  • Heinrich von Herzogenberg: Piano Quintet in C major, Op. 17 (1876)
  • Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Piano Quintet in E-flat minor, Op. 87 (with double bass)
  • Vincent d’Indy: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 81 (1924)
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Piano Quintet in E major, Op. 15 (1921)
  • Bohuslav Martinů: Piano Quintets, H. 35 (1911), H. 229 (1933), H. 298 (1944)
  • Nikolai Medtner: Piano Quintet in C major (1949)
  • Krzysztof Meyer: Piano Quintet Op. 76 (1991)
  • Leo Ornstein: Piano Quintet (1927)
  • Joachim Raff: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 107 (1862)
  • Alan Rawsthorne: Piano Quintet
  • Max Reger: Piano Quintet Nos. 1 and 2 in C minor
  • Carl Reinecke: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 83 (1865)
  • Anton Rubinstein: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 99 (1876)
  • Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 14 (1855)
  • Franz Schmidt: Piano Quintet in G major (1926)
  • Florent Schmitt: Piano Quintet in B minor (1908)
  • Alfred Schnittke: Piano Quintet (1976)
  • Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (Trout Quintet with double bass; 1819)
  • Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)
  • Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2
  • Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940)
  • Jean Sibelius: Piano Quintet in G minor (1890)
  • Sergei Taneyev: Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30 (1911)
  • Louis Vierne: Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 42 (1917)
  • Anton Webern: Piano Quintet (1907)
  • Charles-Marie Widor: Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 7 (1881)
  • Yitzhak Yedid: Piano Quintet ‘Since My Soul Loved’ (2006)
  • Ludwig Thuille: Two Piano Quintets (1885)
The Hinson and Roberts book (pp. 545-68) is the premier source of ideas as you explore your options.

It’s ideal for your encore piece to be familiar to the audience—this is a correlate of the requirement that an encore piece sparkle and divert the audience without placing large demands on them. But the competing requirement that the piece be ‘novel’ and ‘exciting’ means that your selection had best not be a familiar piece that receives excessive or clichéd airplay. I think this 7th movement of the Saint-Saëns piece is nearly perfect from these perspectives.

Incidentally, only the movement ‘The Swan’ was published before Saint-Saëns’s death. (He was supposedly anxious that the pastiche qualities of these pieces would undermine his reputation. For 35 years (between 1886 and 1921), ‘Carnival’ was hardly even a ‘salon’ item, so cautious was Saint-Saëns about restricting its performance—obsessive, almost to the point of being paranoid about it.) After Saint-Saëns’s death ‘The Swan’ quickly became popular among cellists, and is one of Saint-Saëns’s most frequently-performed pieces. ‘The Aquarium’ is far less commonly performed live, despite its popularity as film-score material. Therefore it has an aspect of novelty that makes it a good choice for live encore presentations.

The Nash Ensemble next present a concert on 25-SEP, at Malvern Concert Club in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, with a program that includes the Mahler Piano Quartet; Mozart Piano Quartet in G minor K. 478; Dvořák Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 81. Then on 11-OCT their next concert is at Wigmore Hall in London.

 Nash Ensemble, Dvořák / Saint-Saëns
A  fter 40 years and over 250 premières (140 commissions) the Nash Ensemble is still the best champion that any composer could hope to have. Its concerts are always meticulously polished, but what impressed about this heroically well-stuffed programme—two premières and four other chamber pieces, none more than four years old—was the illusion conjured by the players that they lived with this music for years, even if the ink was barely dry on the page. Perhaps it is precisely because the ensemble is not entirely dedicated to doing contemporary work, that it can radiate so persuasive a feeling of new pieces being assimilated into chamber-music heritage, stretching back two centuries or more.”
  —  The London Times.

18 September 2008

Mendelssohn’s Premature Death

Felix Mendelssohn
The medical basis for Felix Mendelssohn’s death at age 37 of a stroke—only a few months after his sister Fanny’s death of a stroke—has not to date been adequately described in the journal literature. But in recent years there has been intensive research on mutations of the NOTCH3 gene on chromosome 19. Might a NOTCH3 mutation have been the cause of Mendelssohn’s dying? We do not know. But the facts and family history are highly suggestive. NOTCH3 mutations give rise to a variety of hereditary abnormalities including stroke at an early age. Previously termed Familial Stroke Syndrome, CADASIL (cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leucoencephalopathy) is associated with NOTCH3 mutation. And within the past several years there is also now a commercial laboratory offering genomic testing for NOTCH3 variants. You may like to have a look at the sources below—especially if you have a family history anything like Mendelssohn’s?

Or not (as your own preferences and insurance coverage considerations suggest to you is best), inasmuch as there is presently no cure for the NOTCH3-related disorders. But knowing that you have a NOTCH3 point mutation may at least help as regards proper care in dosing with aspirin and other anticoagulants (“blood thinners”) either in surgery or on a chronic basis. And, since the condition is autosomal dominant (AD), knowing that you have it is very important for family planning and parent-child communication.

The person [electing to undertake voluntary genomic testing or screening] may benefit in the long run from making preventive lifestyle choices that will help counteract the biological risk [that is associated with the genotype that they have inherited].”
  —  Personalized Medicine, U.S. News & World Report, 23-APR-2008.
Chromosome 19

16 September 2008

Razumovsky Ensemble’s Account of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat

Octet: Winfried Rademacher, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Laura Samuel, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, Krzysztof Chorzelski, Barbara Doll, Oleg Kogan, Gemma Rosefield

O ur soul—how like the water! Our Fate—how like the wind!”
  —  Goethe.
It is difficult to find words that could possibly enhance enjoyment of the [Op. 20 Octet] Scherzo: [it is] at once a perfect and sufficient piece of abstract music and the most vivid tone-painting of wind-swept, cloud-wracked Nature: it is all gossamer, filigree, fugitive enchantment.”
  —  Hugh Wood.
The study of Mendelssohn has been ‘hot’ in recent years, and attention has focused on Mendelssohn’s identity. Jeffrey Sposato, professor at Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, in particular discusses Mendelssohn’s response to his Jewish heritage. There are examples of cadences composed by Mendelssohn and their close correspondence to cadences in Jewish ritual chants. It is easy to be reminded of this while listening to this famous early composition by Mendelssohn, presented by the Razumovsky Ensemble tonight at Wigmore Hall in London.

The 1825 Octet] attempted to capture the spirit of the last stanza of the Walpurgis Night dream in Faust: ‘The flight of the clouds and the veil of mist / Are lighted from above. / A breeze in the leaves, a wind in the reeds, / And all has vanished.’ One feels so near the world of spirits...”
  —  Jeffrey Sposato, The Price of Assimilation, p. 111.
It is reflexive, not deliberative; the narrative trajectory of this Octet is dramatic and impulsive. There is an energy of motion that is enhanced by the power of the eight instruments. The extrovertedness of the Octet is amazing—that of the then-16 year-old Mendelssohn—and is unlike the tempered, conciliatory, non-athletic dialogues of, say, Op. 44 and beyond. Larry Todd has a nice analysis of Op. 20 in his Mendelssohn biography, beginning at page 151.

Rather than a mere doubling of a quartet, Mendelssohn approached the writing as if it were an eight-piece orchestra. That much is conventional wisdom. But, to me, it seems that the biographers and historians have, to date, been writing hagiography; none has seriously considered what it must’ve been to write this piece as a teenager.

Oleg Kogan
Mendelssohn composed his Octet for strings soon after his family had moved into a big house in the Leipzigerstrasse on the outskirts of Berlin. On the grounds was a garden house which had a room large enough to seat a sizeable audience for the family’s Sunday morning chamber music performances, which involved a number of Herr Mendelssohn’s musician friends. Mendelssohn presented the Octet to his string teacher, Julius Reitz, as a birthday gift. He wrote the soaring violin phrases at the beginning of the first movement in hopes of pleasing his teacher, but he was careful to provide meaty enough parts for the rest of the ensemble as well. This is the context that is seldom mentioned, in biographies or in program notes for this piece.

Octets for strings show signs of ‘clotting’ into an orchestral style. Spohr hit upon the device of dividing the eight into antiphonal quartets: and his four double quartets are much nearer to the true style of chamber music than his string quartets … But Mendelssohn, in the wonderful Octet, does not find Spohr’s simple antiphonal scheme worth the trouble of specially grouping the players when he can instead use 255 different combinations of the eight without enquiring how they are seated.”
  —  Donald Tovey.
How badly we need a detailed exploration of Mendelssohn’s notes with Fanny or other evidence—to see what frame of mind he was in during those months when this Octet was composed! This Octet is not a narrative of Jewish assimilation into Protestant Berlin; it is instead, I believe, a narrative of a precocious and eager-to-please teen’s assimilation into Leipzig adult culture. It is a story not of Jewish identity per se so much as it is a story of teen identity. Have a look at the books by Deborah Browning and Jane Kroger (links below) to explore this line of thought.

The Razumovsky Ensemble gave an enthusiastic reading of the Octet tonight that lends credence to the contextual importance of teenage identity and exuberance. The Razumovskys are an ad hoc assemblage of different world class soloists who are convened by Kogan for particular programs, based on their individual proclivities and repertoire affinities.

In 1989 Oleg Kogan won the All-Soviet Union Cello Competition. He has performed with orchestras including the Moscow Philharmonic, the Latvian State Symphony Orchestra, the Geneva Chamber Orchestra and London Soloist Chamber Orchestra and has given recitals in France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Switzerland and the U.K. In 1998 he became founded the Razumovsky Ensemble, a group of dynamic soloists and section leaders from world-class orchestras based in London. Tonight’s beautiful and illuminating performance was just one configuration of Oleg’s many friends and colleagues.

Mainstream kids do assimilate more smoothly and easily into social situations and their own neighborhoods, but often it is the children with out-of-the-box characteristics, who have the ability to make a significant and inspiring contribution to their community and the talent and vision to change the world in a positive way.”
  —  Stephanie Lerner, Kids Who Think Outside the Box, p. 3.
Jeffrey Sposato book