Friday, March 11, 2011

Gorecki's Symphony No. 3
If there is one piece of music that can calm my nerves, it is this symphony by the Polish composer who died last year in November. I first heard the piece on a drive from Freiburg out to Umkirch to teach an adult education English class. The disc jockey of the classical radio station said the symphony had become a hit on the British pop charts recently. This was 1992 and the techno scene was in bad need of chill music. When the new recording of this work landed in the studios of the BBC and the DJ played the shortest of the three movements (26 - 9 - 17 minutes), the phones started ringing. When I heard this second movement, I thought it was very nice, but the story was for me even more interesting. A classical piece becoming popular? Bring it on!
Three slow movements make up this piece. The first one starts off so softly that you always want to check to see if the disc is spinning, or you turn it up, only to feel the double-basses laying down a fugue-like pattern that swells to a forte and then subsides. The second movement uses the words of a teenage girl, which were written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary. The third movement undulates at the rate of relaxed breathing. The music stops after 13 minutes. You breathe a sigh. You wish for more. Then comes a coda, a bit more, until you are totally relaxed. I've never tried yoga or meditation, but I'll bet this has gotten me close on many an occasion. The vocals, be they sung by Dawn Upshaw, Zofia Kilanowicz, or another soprano, lift and waft through the pulsing string accompaniment in a sad yet uplifting way. Is that possible? Check it out yourself!
A few months ago I got the orchestral score from the public library. I played it on the piano and found the experience relaxing as well. I'd love to have a full piano reduction of the piece. 
My love for the piece grew when I was in the middle of a break-up which was particularly messy. All the stress that goes with conflicts of that nature require equal time under the influence of beautiful music. When my heart would be racing, I'd run over to the CD player where Gorecki was starting to feel at home and press "play." I would invariably turn up the volume for the reason mentioned above and wait for the basses to sweep me away. I would try to follow one melodic line but would get caught up in another one which wove itself into the melody's progress. Then I couldn't think of anything else but the music. If I was lucky, I'd be asleep before the third movement ended.
Today I listen to it on those rare occasions when a migraine strikes, or when I just want to chill.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bernard Haitink conducts Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8

OK, let's get a bit rougher here. The Russian's piano music takes a back seat to his work for orchestra and even for string quartet, though he himself was a tremendous pianist and wrote quite a lot of music for his instrument. He felt he could say more by using a larger variety of instruments. I'll have to agree with Dmitri there.
The year was 1984. I had just graduated from college with a German degree and wanted to get back to the old continent to enjoy long breakfasts with friends, have coffee and cake in the afternoons and go to concerts at night, all the while officially looking for a job in "international business". Whatever that might have been.
So I spent eight months back and forth between my old friends in Münster and my sister in Vienna. While in Münster I went back to the foreign students' office and visited the animated secretary, Frau Droste zu Senden, who let me sign up for a week-long DAAD bus trip to Berlin, which was the same type of thing I had gone on back in 1983. Here's the deal: You paid 50 DM and got a week in Berlin - hotel, meals, free concert tickets every night and seminars about East-West relations. Before I write two books about those two trips, let me concentrate on one concert...or two actually.
Bernard Haiting conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in the first half and Shlomo Mintz soloed in Brahms' Violin Concerto in the second half. I had never heard either live, but was so taken with them the first night that I got a ticket to go back again the following evening. The first evening I was sitting with my girlfriend Gabi and two wonderfully flirty French students, Isabelle and Laurence. We were sitting behind the orchestra, so we watched Haitink's conducting gestures. If you get a chance to do this, too, go for it!
While some say Haitink conducts some pieces too smoothly (Norman Lebrecht faults his style in the new Mahler biography and a conducting professor said something similar to me once), this piece cannot suffer from smoothness. Everything is in there from ppp to fff, from peace to war. Haitink beats time with one hand and motions the phrasing with the other by gracefully opening and closing his fingers. It is magic to watch!
I was fascinated by the symphony, with its opening 25-minute long adagio movement followed by the stormy allegretto and allegro non troppo middle movements. The fast movements march through history, throwing off crises with a glissando here and an almost ad libitum solo there. It is one of my favorite pieces to conduct at home when I'm alone.
The second evening I viewed the concert from the third balcony. When Shlomo Mintz played a Bach encore, the notes flew up to me and disappeared into my ears.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tatiana Nikolayeva plays Shostakovich's Op. 87

24 Preludes and Fugues,  Op. 87

I'm going to start writing about my CDs and what they mean to me, so watch out!

Right now I'm listening to a copy of the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dimitri Shots-of-kovich as played by the Russian pianist for whom he wrote them in 1950 after her Bach interpretation stunned the composer as he sat in the jury of the Leipzig Bach Piano Competition. He composed these marvelous pieces within four months, becoming more and more enthralled with the idea and the genre as he went.
My history with the pieces: A girlfriend in college played piano really well, stunning me again and again with the cadenza from Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto whenever we'd go over to the music building together. Her sister played some of the Preludes and Fugues, which was about as much of a recommendation as I needed to pick up the sheet music a few years later. You see, I approach music through people. And so these blog posts will be as much about my encounters with special people as with the music.
So Lorraine's sister's pianistic talent led me to these 48 gems. I have often said that if I had to give up all my music except one piece, this might just be it (we'll get to Mahler's Second later). The fact that some of them are simple enough to sight-read certainly doesn't reduce my appreciation. After leaving the thick book of sheet music up on my shelf for a number of years, I finally got to the point where I could play the pieces well enough to enjoy.
This recording was the first one I heard of the pieces. At the time (1993, I believe), I probably paid three hours' salary for the three CDs. In the meantime I have recordings by Shostakovich himself (a selection), Richter, Caroline Weichert (whom I met while studying in Münster), Keith Jarrett, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernd Glemser and Olli Mustonen (selections recorded together with Bach preludes and fugues), Alexander Melnikov and arrangements by the Calefax Reed Quintet and for String Quartet.
Most would guess - and many critics would agree - that Nikolayeva's recording is the definitive one. I find a lot to like about all of them. Nikolayeva's playing is calming in the slow pieces and brilliant when her fingers fly. Her 1987 recording is livelier than the one she made in 1991. Jarrett takes the composer's metronome markings literally, which drags the first fugue out three minutes longer than most Russians' interpretations and twice as long as the composer's own recording.
I find the most interesting of the interpretations that by Olli Mustonen, for my money the most exciting pianist out there. The Finn's phrasing will make you wonder at first if he's taking the music seriously, but after being glued to my seat during a concert in which he played Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata in what seemed like one long breath, I'm here to tell you he's an incredible musician. His own compositions are thrilling. And what he does to the Shostakovich is extraordinary. I hardly recognize some of the pieces the way he phrases them, but that's just because they are so alive.
Bernd Glemser's recording - like Mustonen's together with corresponding preludes and fugues by Bach - is also surprisingly good. Ashkenazy's is worth every cent. Shostakovich's playing is manic in places and the sound quality is not quite as good as what you hear in the later recordings, his having been recorded in exactly 10 years before I was born.
The newest recording of the pieces is by Alexander Melnikov. I haven't listened to them enough to be able to write much about them, but certainly will when the time is right.