The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia:

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts:

But the heart of the project is at where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube:

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018

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. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.

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