The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 2017
7 Comments

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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
Leave a Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

http://www.adamneiman.com

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

adam-neiman-2017

There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.

Chopinphoto

Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.

chopin-ballade-2-autograph

In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,212 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,101,837 hits
%d bloggers like this: