The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why is Beethoven so popular? And why do all-Beethoven concerts work so well? Pianist Bryan Wallick answers these questions even as he prepares to play the “Emperor” Concerto this Friday night in the all-Beethoven concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 29, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and pianist Bryan Wallick, who won the Vladimir Horowitz Prize and is returning to Madison, will perform under longtime WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell an all-Beethoven concert to end the WCO’s indoors Masterworks season.

WCO lobby

The program includes the “Leonore” Overture No. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” and the Symphony No. 7.

Tickets are $15-$62.

For more information, visit: http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v

The Ear asked Bryan Wallick to explain why all-Beethoven concerts work so well and why Beethoven remains so popular with the general public. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra will also close its season with Beethoven, specifically the Symphony No. 9 (“Choral” or “Ode to Joy”) on May 8, 9 and 10.)

Wallick (below) kindly responded to an email Q&A:

Bryan Wallick mug

Beethoven, along with a handful of other composers, including Mozart and Tchaikovsky, is one of the few composers who can make up a single-composer concert that also attracts the public. What accounts for that?

Beethoven had the luxury of living a longer life than many of the famous composers, so his compositional output is larger than that of many other composers.

His compositional style also changed dramatically over the course of his life, and there aren’t too many composers whose music is so categorically defined as early, middle and late works.

At the Juilliard School, the famous Beethoven class taught by the late Jacob Lateiner (below) described five different categories of musical progression in Beethoven’s career. This diversity gives many different variations and possibilities of programmatic combinations that are stimulating and exciting.

However most all-Beethoven programs often program works from his middle or late period, and the music is just that good that we are happy to only hear Beethoven. He was perhaps the greatest genius to ever put his pen to music, in a different capacity than Mozart.

Jacob Lateiner

What role has Beethoven played in your career? Are there works in particular that you were drawn to as a student or a performing professional?

Beethoven has been a huge influence in my career, and probably most any pianist’s career as he wrote so much music for the piano.  His 32 sonatas are one of the greatest musical achievements ever produced, so there is always an unending supply of great piano music that most pianists never even get to in their careers unless they become Beethoven specialists.

As a student, I remember a general rule that I was given that I should always be learning some Beethoven sonata while learning everything else that I was working on. As a child, I often listened to Beethoven sonatas before I went to bed, and this music was very motivational in driving me to develop my technique to the level where I could perform these pieces.

Bryan Wallick at piano

Beethoven (below) consistently ranks as the general public’s favorite classical composer. Why is that, do you think?

As I said earlier, the diversity of works is enormous, but I think the general public isn’t that aware of the huge diversity of works. Those are mostly precious gems for musicians to savor, but the tonal language is very acceptable to a wide audience. Plus, the stories of his fiery temper and his deafness add a certain mystery to his genius that can interest a wide audience.

In the work which I will play, the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, it is harmonically very simple, he often just moves between a I chord and a V chord, but how he does it is so interesting and the emotional depths which he contemplates with these very simple chords is astounding. How he is able to encapsulate his struggles and personal hardship in his music is perhaps the reason why his genius could exceed that of Mozart.

Beethoven big

Is there an aspect of Beethoven that you think the public needs to pay more attention to and that you intend to emphasize in your interpretations?

I wish the public had the time and opportunity to become more familiar with a broader range of Beethoven’s music. They often get to hear the famous works, but when one understands and sees the connections between the famous pieces and the ones written in between, the appreciation for what he does in the famous works only becomes greater.

One can always strive to hear more things in the music, and the great experience of performing these works is that even though we’ve played this music many, many times, we as musicians still keep finding new things in this music, and the experience always keeps growing and changing.

Is there anything you would like to say or add?

I love this concerto for many reasons, but one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is how simple it is, and I believe it is a struggle for many pianists to leave this piece alone and not to do too much with it. (Below is the notebook manuscript of the opening of the “Emperor” Concerto from measure 3 until the second theme enters.)

emperor concerto ms from measure 3

The phrasing is very logical, well written, and if a pianist tries to do too much with it, somehow the music doesn’t work.  For example, I feel there is a lot of room for a pianist to manipulate and turn phrases 1,000 different ways in the fourth piano concerto.

But this piece has a structure, logic and direction that I feel a pianist must just accept, appreciate, respect; and they must find a simple way to bring this to an audience. (You can hear the acclaimed Beethoven interpreter and pianist Rudolf Serkin and conductor Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the “Emperor” Concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

I’ve heard many performances of this piece where pianists try to over-interpret things, so my goal is to just let this great music speak on its own with just little “comments” here and there from myself.

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Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Holiday Gift-Giving Guide Part 5: Does Christmas these days bring fewer classical music albums to mark the holidays and offer as holidays gifts?

December 20, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

In the midst of the holiday gift-giving season – well, at least in the last-minute throes of it anyway – NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence” has raised an interesting and intriguing question that should engage all classical music fans at this time of the year.

Are recording companies offering the public fewer holiday-themed classical albums? (Below is a collage sampling of some classical holiday albums from recent years.)

holidayalbums

Some individuals (vocalists especially) and ensembles (choirs and orchestras especially) still do seem to offer holiday treats often, if not every year – though nowhere near the number of holiday albums that more popular genres such as pop and country manage to produce. Nevertheless, The Ear still thinks there is something to the accusation.

However, I would also add that in general, the industry probably has too many old-time recordings of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” or Handel’s “Messiah” or J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto – to take four prominent or well-known examples — to do some new ones. (below is a remastered classic 1959 version of Handel’s “Messiah” with Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.)

Messiah 1959 older version

Increasingly, I wonder, maybe the answer lies in more specialty titles of less well-known repertoire – perhaps pre-Bach early music or else Arvo Part-type contemporary music — that are not likely to be duplicates from the archives of earlier analogue and digital recordings.

Anyway, here is a link to the NPR story, with audio sample and links to holiday classical albums that make great gifts as well as reader comments:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/12/12/167061667/celebrating-the-increasingly-rare-classical-christmas-album

What do you think about the state of holiday recordings issued for the holidays?

The Ear wants to hear.


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