New England Romanticism

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach: Sonata for Violin and Piano / Arthur Foote: Sonata for Violin and Piano

Joseph Silverstein, violin / Gilbert Kalish, piano

New World Records NW268

Like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn before her, Amy Beach (or Mrs. H.H.A. Beach if you want to be patriarchal about it) was a phenomenal composer and pianist severely limited by the arbitrary obstacle of her gender. The milieu she was raised in,  mid to late 19th century New Hampshire, wasn’t much more liberating than her female forebears’ had been. In particular, the classical music world had always been totally male-dominated. A woman composer or soloist had to prove herself by being a superhumanly skillful musician. Which is exactly what Amy Beach happened to be.

Beach, nee Cheney, born in 1867, was what we’d call a child prodigy. At the age of two she could play counter-melody like it was nobody’s business. Still in her teens, she went on to a celebrated career as a soloist, well-known for her performances of Moscheles, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Then she got married. Her new husband demanded that she rein in her busy performance schedule. So, besides her family who wished her to just settle down, she had to contend with Mr. Beach. He gave his consent for her to compose, but with the shitty stipulation that any music bear her married name. In 1896, she composed and had premiered her “Gaelic” Symphony, which did for Irish-American tunes what Dvorak had done for spirituals and New World harmonies. It was the first ever symphony by a woman.

Indeed, she helped promulgate a national American music, becoming part of the so-called Second New England School of composers, which included Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote and others who comprised the “Boston Six”. Her Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, op. 45, debuted in 1900, with Beach herself soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor (1897) of Amy Beach has started to achieve something of it’s overdue prominence. Beach and Franz Kneisel (then conductor of the BSO) premiered the piece. A haunting solo from the piano introduces the theme, which expands into a Romantic outpouring from both instruments. The 2nd movement is a plucky tune before turning more sensuous, while the Largo con dolore is full-bore Romanticism with a tangibly yearning thrum. An Allegro con fuoco wraps up the sonata with an exuberant momentum that nonetheless doesn’t lose sight of it’s tender core.

Equal parts Brahms and Rachmaninov (and some weirdly modernist moments you might encounter in the neoclassical homages of Prokofiev or Stravinsky), the sonata has a strong American folk-song vibe. This recording from New World Records comes with the added bonus of the Violin Sonata by Beach’s colleague Arthur Foote, and some fantastical sleeve art you probably wouldn’t associate with East Coast chamber music.

The Dodecaphonists

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Berg: Lyric Suite / Webern: 5 Pieces & 6 Bagatelles

Julliard String Quartet

RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2531


I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.

-Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective


Arnold Schoenberg started a musical revolution with his 12-tone system just before the outbreak of WWI. His approach was to throw a wrench into “classical” composition by reordering the musical scale along deterministic lines. Each of the keys are given equal importance in his schematic, favoring “rows” to classify the various pitches, where rhythm, melody, development are forsaken for mathematical symmetry.

And the music of the Second Viennese School, as Schoenberg and his disciples are sometimes called, is like listening to a scientific theorem, or a bad dream about one–not exactly pleasant on the ears, but with a dynamic precision whose beauty is in the method more than the medium.

Two of Schoenberg’s closest adherents to serialism are coupled on this Columbia recording. Alban Berg was a soft-core 12-toner, but his Lyric Suite is very much a step-child of Schoenberg’s system. The work is in the sonata form, but bears little resemblance to any sonata you’ve ever heard, where no one theme is developed and yet, in the first movement, as Rene Leibowitz said, “everything is developmental” without reaching synthesis. Technically, it’s all hexachords, secondary sets, tretrachordal passages, cycles of fifths, etcetera, that would take an expert musicologist to explain adequately. (Theodor Adorno, just such a critic, called it “a latent opera”.) Inversions and sets-within-sets, mirrorings that recapitulate and transform earlier bars–it’s like Kurt Godel turning to music.

Later, Berg transcribed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements for string orchestra, as did Anton Webern, for his more accessible works for quartet. Atonalism is certainly the gist of the Pieces and Bagatelles, but imbued with snippets of harmony and exceptionally haunting sounds from the cello.

The Julliard, with a background in Schubert and Beethoven, dampens down the harsher elements, situating the composers in their historical milieu as both extensions of and heresiarchs to classical forms, especially in the Webern. Still, in their hands, the quartets retain an abrasiveness that still sounds uncomfortably new.

Sublimities

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Mozart: Clarinet Quintet & Oboe Quartet

Arthur Grimiaux, violin / George Peterson, clarinet / Pierre Pierlot, oboe / Koji Toyoda, violin / Max Leseuer, viola / Janos Scholz, cello

Philips 6500 924

The clarinet used to annoy me without fail. It always sounded like a teakettle with a hangover. Then I heard Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet performed by the Emerson, and I changed my tune. In the Adagio second movement, there’s a bracingly gorgeous section where the strings sustain a deep vibrato while the clarinet flits around it. After that, the clarinet became a friend, if an inconstant one. The instrument is especially suited to the ethereal and the mysterious, finding one of its best spots in Olivier Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, and a other works of an Impressionist nature.

But it’s possible that no one has surpassed Mozart in composing for the clarinet. His quintet for the woodwind, along with the later Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622, are two of his most profoundly lasting works. And, for me, the 1789 Quintet (perhaps the first to be composed for that particular ensemble) is total sublimity in 4 movements.

Mozart met the famed clarinetist Anton Stadler at a Freemason meeting, who premiered both the aforementioned works. Up to then the clarinet was an orchestral mainstay, but hadn’t yet been recognized for solo potential. Mozart kickstarted the instrument’s solo career with this quintet.

Here, the clarinet is given an operatic voice with a near-tangible stage presence, while the quartet of strings provide a concerto-like accompaniment that becomes delightful intermission music when the clarinet isn’t in the spotlight. Structurally and emotionally, it’s crisper and warmer than almost anything from the period. But it’s the slow Larghetto that gets you. Beginning with an aria from the clarinet that’s sympathetically joined by the violin, it then drops into soulful longing, with the rest of the strings playing softly under the clarinet’s wistful monologue. The Clarinet Quintet is one of those rare bits of music that sounds like it’s  carrying on an intimate conversation with each listener.

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Whimsy

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Utterly whimsical sleeve by Sandy Hoffman for Crossroads, a classical label known for its whimsical sleeves. It portrays the three members of the Suk Trio, with the namesake Josef Suk ready to catch the cellist, who is sliding down the piano. The record contains some fine performances of Beethoven’s early Op. 1, No. 3 Trio, along with the more mature Op. 70 Trio, nicknamed the “Ghost” for its eerie, dirge-like second movement in the dark key of D minor. And yet the artwork is the very essence of silliness.