The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 2 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing songs and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format that features moody song-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:3 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and musical collaboration. The two musicians (below with UW alumna Julia Foster, who teaches voice at Rollins College and who will join in the singing) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers have been featured yesterday and today on this blog.

Here is a link to yesterday’s posting of Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/classical-music-qa-the-annals-of-accompanying-part-1-of-2-the-ear-talks-with-baritone-paul-rowe-and-pianist-martha-fischer-both-of-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-about-t/

 

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 2

What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator?

PAUL ROWE: The first requirement is to be a great pianist and musician. Then, I think, especially if one is going to work with singers, the pianist needs to be interested in the poetry and the smaller format of the song. It is very important to have a working relationship where the leading role is constantly switching back and forth. To be able to exchange ideas and interpretations is also crucial to a rewarding working arrangement.

MARTHA FISCHER: Great artist-accompanists are able to both be supremely flexible and yet maintain a true artistic profile. Great accompanists bring a point of view to the table and play their parts with the same artistic integrity that one would bring to any solo work. They are able to meld with their partners to create a single artistic statement.  And they usually need to be nice people!

accompanying singer and piano

What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Technical matters? Psychological and emotional aspects? How does each of you affect the other one? Does a collaboration develop and deepen over time and as you get to know each other in other collaborative projects?

PR: Martha and I have done many performances together of a variety of different types of music. We have, from the first, been able to hear and see things in similar ways. In many cases, we don’t need much rehearsal at all.

The most challenging thing has been finding time to work on things in a relaxed way, when we have time to discuss the pieces and the best ways to present them. Often, we are both running from lessons or meetings and trying to squeeze in some quality time.

It helps that we share a great love for this repertoire. We even team taught a special literature class a couple of years ago which was lots of fun to share our feelings and knowledge of the music with a group of students.

MF: For me, encountering the vast and amazing art song repertoire is, in itself, the most rewarding part of collaborating with singers.  And then when you are able to create this music with a sympathetic partner who already shares your values, it is one of the greatest experiences a pianist can have.

The challenges these days are mostly logistic — not enough time to practice and prepare on your own as well as together. Paul and I have been working together now for about 17 years. I knew when I first played for him that we were a good musical partnership. We rarely have musical disagreements — we are both flexible and open to each other’s ideas and we both listen to each other — musically and verbally.

And yes, our artistic collaborations (below, in Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the First Unitarian Society of Madison), like many others that I have enjoyed over the years, do develop and deepen over time, just like any important relationship in life. You come to trust one another and we definitely have a special connection.

Winterreise applause

Is it easier to do some kinds of music (vocal versus instrumental) or composers and styles (Baroque versus Romantic or Modern) than others? Which ones?

PR: We have had the easiest time with the famous works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Some of the more rewarding performances have been of the works of some lesser-known composers or of works by famous people that are not heard as often. Some example are the William Blake songs of Benjamin Britten, the Francois Villon songs of Claude Debussy, some works of Francis Poulenc and Georges Enescu, Ivor Gurney and even Louis Coerne, Louis Spohr, Franz Schreker and Carl Loewe.

MF: There are different challenges in vocal and instrumental accompanying.  In vocal accompanying, you have to deal with and understand the words, poetry, languages, diction and style as well as the technical challenges presented.  The pieces tend to be shorter, but in recital that presents a challenge in itself because each new song is its own universe and there is often no time to gradually arrive there. You will find the same technical and musical challenges that you find in the solo piano repertoire.  Debussy is Debussy.  Brahms is Brahms.

Instrumental music is generally closer to solo piano music in that you don’t have the issues listed above (texts, languages, etc.) and you often have the challenge of playing longer forms such as sonatas — of planning and pacing a performance over a longer trajectory. But again, the challenges depend quite a bit on the composer and the piece and each experience is unique.

piano and violin accompanying

What would you each like to say about what has gone into your upcoming performance of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Song Book”? What are the challenges for each you in relating to each other and best serving the music?

PR: I think we have had a great time getting to know these songs. The level of detail on which Hugo Wolf (below, in a photograph from 1902) works is astonishing. The quick transitions from humorous to serious moods, the sarcastic, snide commentary that is sometimes explicit and sometimes obscure, the quick dynamic and tempo changes as well as the sometime dicey harmonies are what make these songs such a delight.

The technical demands on both singers and pianist are extreme but they are never random. The “Italienisches Liederbuch” is probably the most entertaining and demanding of all the Wolf collections. Luckily for us, it is also the most rewarding for performers and audience.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

MF:  Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” encompasses every aspect of human relationships and emotion. It is so incredibly rich on every level. Pianistically, the intense chromaticism presents its own problems –- it is hard to keep track of what key you are in and which accidentals carry through the measure — and there are very, very wide stretches in both hands that have to be either placed between the hands or played as rolled chords.

Most of the songs are quite short (2-3 pages each) and go by so fast that it can be like an emotional roller coaster. Of course, that’s the fun of it as well. There is a lot of humor and reverence and love in these songs, and they certainly are some of the best that the German Lied, or art song, has to offer. It is a privilege beyond words for me to play these pieces with both Julia and Paul, and it has been a complete joy to do so.

What else would you like to say or add from your specific point of view?

PR: I realize that this is a very specialized repertoire that may be intimidating to many concertgoers. Even the title is somewhat confusing. Why are these Italian songs in German? How can this music be relevant for a modern audience? I would encourage anyone who does not know the music of Hugo Wolf to give this music a chance. There is so much beauty, humor and variety that it is worth the time and effort to experience it. (At bottom is a Hugo Wolf sampler in a YouTube video that includes a dozen songs from the “Italian Songbook” sung by baritone Hermann Prey and accompanied by pianist Daniel Barenboim.) 

MF: For the listeners who might come to hear the “Italian Songbook,” I would urge them to really pay attention to the piano parts. Just about every nuance of emotion in the text is presented in the piano writing through tiny harmonic shifts and stunning, sometimes sudden dynamic changes.

Also, I’m playing every piece on the program -– a total of 46 songs — where Paul and Julia get to share the stage (equally divided between them).  It’s a bigger job for me than anyone else!  And … lucky me!

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Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 1 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 24, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing song and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format (bel0w) that also features moody theme-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot and a foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and of musical collaboration. The two musicians (below left and center with UW alumna Julia Foster, right, who teaches voice at Rollins College and will join in the singing of the Wolf songs) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers will be featured today and tomorrow on this blog.

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 1

Why is “accompanying” now referred to as “collaboration”? What distinction is one trying to make? What would you like the audience to listen for and hear in an exemplary collaboration?

PAUL ROWE: To me, this is all in the interest of equal billing for equal participation.

In the past the singer was often the “star,” who hired a pianist to play for them. This started to change in some cases as far back as the 1840s when Felix Mendelssohn and then Johannes Brahms played with selected singers in salons and concert halls. They would do what we now call recitals and might feature music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann or Brahms or Mendelssohn.

The first of the great modern collaborators was Gerald Moore (below in 1967, seated, with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the left, and also at the bottom in a 1957 YouTube video that celebrates spring with two songs by Franz Schubert). Moore joined many of the great post World War II recitalists including Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Fritz Wunderlich, Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in many performances.

Other great pianists who also collaborated since that time have included Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Swallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich. The next generation included Graham Johnson, Harmut Höll, Jorg Demus and many others. All of these great pianists deserve equal billing with the singers or other musicians.

MARTHA FISCHER: When thinking about the specialty of “pianists-who-prefer-playing-with-others,” Collaborative Piano is a more inclusive term.  It refers to all of the many possibilities of collaboration – duos, trios, larger chamber works, piano-four-hands, two pianos, accompanying choirs, playing as orchestral pianists or with wind ensembles, etc.

This is the explanation from a purely practical standpoint.  But in addition to that, there is the fact that over time “accompanying” had come to have a pejorative connotation — that “those who can’t really play SOLO piano become accompanists.”  In more recent years, I believe that we (including pianists, by the way) have come to understand that it is an art in and of itself that deserves the same respect as any other kind of music-making.

I usually have a whole class in my undergraduate accompanying course where I talk to the students about the importance of approaching their collaborative repertoire with the same kind of integrity that they do their solo repertoire.

If we, as pianists, think of it as “just accompanying” — as a lesser experience — then we are perpetuating the stereotype that accompanists are good sight-readers who should stay in the background and be nothing more than pretty wallpaper to the soloist’s great artistry.

If we as pianists bring all we have to offer to the table and are as prepared (or more so) than our partners, then we play in a way that demands respect.  And that’s where it should all begin.

dietrich fischer- dieskau and gerald moore in 1967

Historically or on the contemporary scene, are there great collaborations that you admire and view as role models?

PR: I would have to rate the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore (below) and Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten duos as among the most influential for me. Also, Pierre Bernac/Francis Poulenc and Gerard Souzay/Dalton Baldwin rank very high.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore 1

MF: Some of the greatest collaborations between singers and pianists?  They include Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (below), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the great Gerald Moore (Fischer-Dieskau collaborated with many pianists, among them being Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Sviatoslav Richter and others; and Gerald Moore collaborated with virtually every great singer in the mid-20th century, but Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s collaborations are still very special). And then there’s Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac!

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten

Today, I often look to the British pianist, Graham Johnson (below top), who created “The Songmakers’ Almanac,” a group of singers who would do projects of art songs and specially designed programs. (He has done HUGE recording projects for the Hyperion label including the complete Schubert songs, the complete Brahms, Schumann, etc.).

Graham Johnson is also a gifted writer about music and I absolutely love his extensive notes on every song he has recorded. His writing gives us a glimpse into the detailed scholarship, creativity, and imagination that he possesses as an artist (In fact, I have especially enjoyed reading his notes on Wolf’s “Italian Songbook”!) In America, pianist Steven Bleier (below bottom), who teaches at the Julliard School and who played at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, has put together The New York Festival of Song that does similar song-related concerts on special topics or composers.

Graham Johnson at piano

There are many other great accompanists today, all of whom I see as role models: Malcolm Martineau, Roger Vignoles, Helmut Deutsch, Justus Zehen, Julius Drake, Craig Rutenberg, Warren Jones and Martin Katz, just to name a few.

steven bleier

TOMORROW: What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator? What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Are some styles of music easier to accompany? And what makes Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” special?

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Classical music: What classical music goes best with the NFL’s Super Bowl 48 football championship today? Plus, University of Wisconsin-Madison singers and instrumentalists movingly celebrate Franz Schubert in death as he was in life – with a “Schubertiade” birthday party.

February 2, 2014
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READER POLL: The Ear wants to know what piece of classical music — if any — goes well with today’s NFL Super Bowl 48 national football championship between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks? Maybe Aram Khachaturian‘s “The Gladiators” from “Spartacus”? Leave your suggestions, with a link to a YouTube video if you can, in the COMMENTS section.

Super Bowl 48

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

January 31, 1797 was the birthdate of Franz Schubert (below), who died at only 31 on Nov. 19, 1828. So Friday night, January 31, 2014, was the 217th anniversary of his birth.

Franz Schubert writing

With her opportunity of giving a faculty recital, University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist (and singer) Martha Fischer (below, in a photo by Karin Talbot) decided to do a very Schubertian thing to mark the anniversary: Have a party. (Event photos are by The Ear.)

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

In the last years of his short life, Schubert was sustained socially as well as financially by a devoted circle of friends, drawn from the cultural classes of Vienna in his day. Their spontaneous parties, which they came to call “Schubertiades” (depicted below, with Schubert at the piano, in a painting by Julius Schmid) were lively social gatherings with their focus on Schubert’s latest compositions.

Schubertiade in color by Julius Schmid

Accordingly, backed by her pianist husband, Bill Lutes, Fischer invited a number of colleagues from the UW School of Music to pay tribute to the beloved composer with a facsimile of a Schubertiade,

And so, the stage of Mills Hall (below) was fitted out with a large carpet, a standing floor lamp and circles of chairs welcomed members of the audience, to be close presences to the fun. (Alas, though, no free beer was included!)

Schubertiade 2014 stage in MIlls Hall

The constantly shifting lineup of singers involved four voice-faculty members (sopranos Mimmi Fulmer and Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top), tenor James Doing, baritone Paul Rowe) and three graduate students in voice (soprano Sarah Richardson, below bottom on the left), tenor Thomas Leighton (below bottom on the right) and baritone Jordan Wilson).

Schubertiade 2014 Elizabeth Hageborn

Schubertiade 2014 Sarah Richardson  soprano and Thomas Leighton tenor

Assuming her mezzo-soprano hat, Fischer sang two items herself, and she and Lutes rotated as piano accompanists, each demonstrating the talent and skill it takes to be a fine collaborative musician. Both of them tightly controlled the balance between voice and modern concert grand piano, never allowing the piano to drown the singers. And both pianists also matched the moods of the songs and the singers. That’s important because this concert had a lot of high-quality vocal talent, and it must be said that the student singers held their own splendidly with their faculty partners.

When one thinks about it, a great proportion of Schubert’s compositions is social music, meant for parlors and domestic music-making rather than concert situations.

That is most particularly true of his songs, and part-songs, with piano. The program offered 14 songs (with each singer having at least two solo assignments), one duet, and two part songs. The program was divided into two halves, with the general themes of “Night and Dreams” and “Love and Death.” While a couple of the songs were among Schubert’s more familiar ones (like the famous  “Die Forelle or The Trout, below as sung by baritone Jordan Wilson and also heard at the bottom in a YouTube video with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore) most were chosen artfully from among the less often-heard ones.

Schubertiade 2014 barione Jordan Wilson

Fulmer (below top) was particularly expressive in her two solos. She was, in fact, absolutely gripping in Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a Gothic-horror scene in which a court dwarf, betrayed by his former lover, the queen, kills her and sails into oblivion. (I unashamedly admit this grim masterpiece, so compellingly designed by Schubert, is one of my favorites among his songs.) James Doing (below bottom) had just the right range of gestures and expressions to make Lachen und Weinen (Laughter and Tears) a casual expression of ironic bafflement.

Schubertiade 2014 Mimmi Fulmer BIG

Schubertiade 2014 James Doing

And Paul Rowe (below) gave Totengräbers Heimweh (Grave-Digger’s Longing) a quality of dark probing into the very prospects of human mortality that Schubert himself was learning to fear when he wrote it. But perhaps it is unfair to single out individual performances, since they were all so lovely.

Scubertiade 2014 Paul Rowe baritone BIG

Each of the program’s two halves had its own instrumental intermezzo.

In the first half, it was the simple but moving Notturno (Nocturne) for violin, cello, and piano (below) — a discarded movement from one of Schubert’s piano trios, in which violin student Alice Bartsch and cello professor Parry Karp joined Fischer in a beautiful performance.

Scubertiade 2014 Notturno

For the second half, the dynamic duo of Fischer and Lutes plunged into the ambitious and late Fantasy in F minor for piano-four hands — surely among the supreme masterpieces of all music for piano duet.

Schubertide 2014 Bil Lutes and Martha Fischer

There was one added song, however, as the finale. All the singers gathered together to sing the sublime An die Musik (To Music), but with the audience invited to join in—sustained by a reproduction of the score on the back of the texts handout — and responded with a standing ovation for all the performers (below).

Schubertiade 2014 standing ovation

This kind of sing-along trick could have been cheap, but in fact it worked beautifully, with many in the audience adding their voices, obviously caught up in the spirit of that most social, most lovable and most astounding of great composers, Franz Schubert.

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Classical Music: Spring arrives today! What great music should greet it? And acclaimed Czech pianist Martin Kasik will perform Liszt, Debussy and Mussorgsky at Farley’s this Saturday night.

March 20, 2013
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ALERT: It may not feel like it, but today — Wednesday, March 20, 2013 -– is the vernal equinox (from the Latin for “equal night”). It arrives in Wisconsin at 6:02 a.m. CDT. And boy, is it ever welcome this year after this on-and-off winter of warm and cold, snowfall and floods, sunshine and gray skies. But the first of spring is so cold!! So is spring a reality? Or just a dream or maybe illusion? Franz Schubert wondered the same thing in the YouTube video of his song “Spring Dream” (below) from “Winterreise” (Winter Journey), sung by the incomparable German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last year. (The mix of Schubert titles for the cycle and this specific song  certainly applies to this winter and spring, no?).  What piece would you like to hear to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of spring?

By Jacob Stockinger

Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, will present a concert by the internationally recognized Czech pianist Martin Kasik on this Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

The first half of the performance will feature all three movements of Claude Debussy’s “Estampes” (Prints) that include “Pagodas,”  “Evening in Granada” and “Gardens in the Rain”; and Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum” (Dream of Love) No. 3 and “Spanish Rhapsody.” After an intermission, Kasik will perform Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (at bottom in a YouTube video) in its entirety. See the program details at www.farleyspianos.com

Martin Kasik w piano

Tickets can be purchased in person at Farley’s House of Pianos and Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, or by calling (608) 271-2626 to reserve tickets by credit or debit card.

Tickets are $35 the day of the concert or $30 in advance. Located on Madison’s far west side near West Towne, Farley’s House of Pianos will have plenty of free parking available, and is easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.  A reception will follow the concert.

Martin Kasik formal at piano

Kasik has been playing piano since the age of four and won many national and international awards before the age of 25, including the 1999 Young Concert Artists Competition and the 2000 Davidoff Prix. Other prizes include: the 1997 Chopin International Piano Competition, 1st prize; the 1998 Prague Spring International Competition, 1st prize; the 1998 Young Concert Artists Competition, European Round, Leipzig, 1st prize; and the 1999 Young Concert Artists Competition, World Round, New York, 1st prize.

Kasik has played throughout the world, including concerts in Helsinki, Barcelona, Tokyo, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Kasik teaches piano at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and is considered one of the best Czech pianists active today.

Other 2013 concerts include UW-Madison cellist Parry Karp and UW-Oshkosh pianist Eli Kalman in the complete works for cello and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven on April 19 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 4:30 p.m.

 


Classical music: The Ear says goodbye and “Rest in Peace” to 22 prominent classical musicians who died in 2012.

December 29, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the sad duties of ushering in the New Year is saying goodbye to the old year and especially to the people we loved or respected who died last year. (A couple of days remain in 2012, but we can hope no other prominent clasiscal musicians pass away.)

When it comes to classical music, I can’t think of better round up of the classical musicians we lost than the one that was posted this past week by the famed New York City-based all-classical radio station WQXR. (Much of its programming can be streamed live in real time, including its annual end-of-the-year Classical Countdown through this weekend until midnight on New Year’s Eve that includes 105 audience favorites. Check its home page www.wqxr.org)

Not only does the WQXR obituaries offer fine portraits of the musicians, they also give their ages as well as a capsule summary of their careers with particular points of distinction.

Some of the names, from all genres, are all too familiar: baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below); composers Elliott Carter and Dave Brubeck; pianist Alexis Weissenberg and pianist-writer Charles Rosen, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (at bottom, singing Villa-Lobos). But there are many more who were also distinguished and who will be missed.

dietrich fischer-dieskau at height

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2012/dec/26/memoriam-classical-musicians-who-died-2012-slideshow/slideshow/

Let us keep them in our memory and be thankful for the music and beauty they brought into this world, which so sorely needs that beauty.

If you know of someone who was left our,  please leave some remark or remembrance in the COMMENT section.

May the departed rest is peace as we greet 2013.


Classical music: Why is Brahms’ “German” Requiem so great? Ask the American poet Emily Dickinson.

December 10, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Great musical works, like great poems, get analyzed and  eventually overanalyzed. Yet they still stand and endure and continue to speak to us and to move us and make us think. That is why they are masterpieces.

So just maybe we can use one masterpiece to discuss another – counterparts in beauty, as it were, or “correspondences” to use French poet Charles Baudelaire’s term. After all, poets and musicians seem to have a lot in common.

Let me be specific. I have in mind the “German” Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, below).

Johannes_Brahms

I could talk about the two outstanding performances of the 75-minute “German” Requiem that I heard this past weekend. I could mention how robustly and, at the same time,  subtly the University of Wisconsin  Symphony Orchestra played under conductor Beverly Taylor (below left).

Beverly Taylor and Choral Union and UW Symphony Brahms German 12-7-12

I could praise how the choral parts, as performed by the campus and community UW Choral Union (below top), brought so many degrees of shading and dynamics to convey the mood and meaning of the text. I could single out how the undergraduate soloists, baritone Benjamin Li (below middle) and soprano Olivia Pogodzinski (below bottom), stood out for their full, strong voices.

Choral Union Brahms 2012

Benjamin Li, baritone Brahms German 12-7-12

Olivia Pogodzinski soprano Choral Union Brahms 12-7-12

But something deeper and more elusive haunts one about this music. And if it didn’t, would I perceive the music as so great?

We have a long history together, the Brahms “German” Requiem and me.

I first sang it when I was 14 or 15.

Since then it has remained for is one of the greatest pieces of music. I see it as the greatest choral work ever in part because it is more a secular humanist work rather than a religious one, and because the Scriptural texts seem so universal. Plus, the work feels so perfect in how carefully it is composed and written, for both voices and instruments. It feels so spontaneous and heart-felt, yet it is also so crafted and well thought-out. It is a perfect blending of the heart-felt and the analytical, the personal and the objective.

For a long time I have played the “German” Requiem to privately mourn the deaths of family members, friends and even the sadness of world events. This year too it once again holds special meaning for me. (And for others too, since these performances were dedicated to UW Professor Emeritus David Schrieber, who sang with the UW Choral Union for more than 40 years and recently died.)

But what words could really do justice to this great work with its sweeping melodies; its alternating drama and lyricism; its mix of Classicism and Romanticism; with its using  counterpoint and fugues both to offset and to enhance its soaring melodic lines and rich harmonies? (At bottom is Movement 6 with baritone soloist Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.)

I wondered.

Then I found the right words – not from me but from a great artist who lived closer in time to Brahms and who seems to share his sensibility and whose work even follows the same as the “German” Requiem.

The words come from one of those short and sometimes cryptic, but deeply moving poems by the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886, below, in a daguerreotype photograph from 1846) –- and it is absolutely worthy of Johannes Brahms and his “German” Requiem:

emily dickinson BW photo daguerrotype 1846

AFTER GREAT PAIN, A FORMAL FEELING COMES

By Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

As Brahms’ text , drawn from  “Revelations,” says in the last movement: “Their works live on after them.”

Do you also think the poem captures some or even much of the Brahms?

Do other poems or passages of literature come to mind when you think of the Brahms?

And what did you think of the performances this past weekend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: Famed German baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau is dead at 86. Listen, be moved and leave a message.

May 19, 2012
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music world is in mourning today.

Yesterday, on Friday, May 18, 2012, the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below, at 80 in his Berlin home) died at 86, just a few weeks short of his 87th birthday.

I don’t find much to say.

One thing is that I regret I never got to hear him in person. What a treat that would have been, since his ability to communicate the feeling and meaning of a song without cheap or melodramatic theatrics to an audience was unsurpassed.

I also want to say we are lucky to have had him with us as long as we did. He was notoriously heavy cigarette smoker, and an unrepentant one at that. He has been quoted as saying that his smoking added something intangible to his superb tonal quality. Well, may or maybe not. Who am I to argue with him?

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was really one of the vocalists who seemed to sing as naturally and effortlessly as the rest of us breathe and talk. You never heard audible breathing, his line is so seamless. Just listen to his flowing and uninterrupted phrasing. Below, he is singing Schubert’s “In Spring” with pianist Sviatoslav Richter in 1978.

And his diction was unsurpassed. Whether his diction came from his total devotion to the text, or the his devotion to the text arose from his unsurpassed diction, I can’t tell. It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg issue. But does it matter, really? Whatever he did and however he did it, it worked – for many, many decades. (Below is the young Fischer-Dieskau performing in the 1950s.)

Longevity was another part of his miracle. Fischer-Dieskau recorded the great repertoire standards of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler  many times – entire cycles three or four times with different pianists and at different ages. His prolific career spanned 50 years and he produced hundreds of recordings in his lifetime.

It is a measure of his greatness how quickly condolences, tributes and testimonial sites sprouted up on the web and especially at YouTube.

So here are links to two of the sites with the news and factual accounts of his death:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/baritone-dietrich-fischer-dieskau-has-died-aged-86

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/05/18/152991743/remembering-a-born-god-among-singers-dietrich-fischer-dieskau

Here is a link to a wonderfully candid interview the singer gave to The Guardian when he turned 80:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/may/20/classicalmusicandopera2

And here are links to YouTube videos that were put on the day Dietrich Fischer died and where you can leave comments — as well as herein the COMMENTS section of this blog. Tell us your favorite song he sang and what you liked most about his singing and what it was like to hear him live.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-iiSAjh2U4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLcc0X4pjDA

And here is Schubert’s entire song cycle “Winterreise” with Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Alfred Brendel. 


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