The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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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 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/ECMRecordsChannel

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


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