The Well-Tempered Ear

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

November 18, 2017
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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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Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/04/555327012/a-young-lion-tamed-by-chopin-s-fantasy

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings the debut of a new conducting professor with the UW Symphony Orchestra plus a major voice recital, a string quintet and two master classes.

October 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week for classical music in Madison, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Certainly the standout event is the debut of Chad Hutchinson (below). He is the new conducting teacher and succeeds James Smith.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra will take place on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The intriguing program features the Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner (you can hear George Solti perform it with the Vienna Philharmonic the YouTube video at the bottom); the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy; the “Mothership,” with electronics, by the American composer Mason Bates; and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that was recently voted the best symphony ever written by more than a hundred conductors.

Here is a link to more about Hutchinson’s impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/chad-hutchinson/

And here is a schedule of other events at the UW:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall conductor Scott Teeple leads the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) in its FREE season opener featuring music by Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland, Roger Zare and Jennifer Higdon. Also featured is guest oboist, faculty member Aaron Hill (below bottom).

Here is a link to program notes:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble/

Also at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Morphy Recital Hall, the internationally renowned guest violist Nobuko Imai (below), from Japan, will give a free public master class in strings and chamber music.

THURSDAY

At noon in Mills Hall, guest violist Nobuko Imai (see above) will perform a FREE one-hour lunchtime concert with the Pro Arte Quartet, which has San Francisco cellist guest Jean-Michel Fonteneau substituting for the quartet’s usual cellist, Parry Karp, who is sidelined temporarily with a finger injury.

The ensemble will perform just one work: a driving and glorious masterpiece, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms.

At 1 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Demondrae Thurman (below), a UW alumnus who is distinguished for playing the euphonium, will give a free public master class in brass.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/master-class-demondrae-thurman-euphonium/

NOTE: The 3:30 master class for singers by Melanie Helton has been CANCELLED. The UW hopes to reschedule it for late fall or spring.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a  photo by Michael R. Anderson) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below middle) will give a FREE concert of three songs cycles by Robert Schumann (the famed “Liederkreis); Maurice Ravel; and UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel (below bottom).

For the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-paul-rowe-voice-martha-fischer-piano-2/

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform under its new conductor Chad Hutchinson. See above.

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. the afternoon concerts by Lyle Anderson at the UW Carillon (below) on Observatory Drive will resume.

Here is a link with a schedule and more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/carillon-concert/2017-10-08/


Classical music: Farley’s underappreciated Salon Piano Series shines again with duo-pianists Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro

September 29, 2017
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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-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 photos.

By John W. Barker

Roberto Plano appeared last season in a four-piano concert in the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. This year, to open the 2017-18 season in the same series on last Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based pianist brought along his pianist wife, Paola Del Negro, for a duo program of utter fascination. (They are below.)

The first half of the program was devoted to music for piano-four hands, the duo alternating between primo and secondo parts. Robert Schumann’s six “Pictures From the East,” Op. 66, are examples of the composer’s important duo output.

Burgmein was the pen name of the covert composer better known as the influential music promoter and publisher Giulio Ricordi (below). His set of six duet pieces evoking characters from the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte tradition followed.

Then came two of the Hungarian Dances (No. 2 and 5) by Johannes Brahms in their original piano-duo form. (You can hear them play Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ending the program’s first half was one of its biggest hits. After composing the great orchestral cycle of six patriotic scenes called “My Country,” Bedrich Smetana (below) made four-hand piano arrangements of each. Plano and Del Negro played that for the popular “Moldau.” This arrangement managed to capture a good deal of the orchestral original’s coloristic and dramatic effects, and was played with particular power.

The entire second half was devoted exclusively to a major work by Brahms, his Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. This work was created first as a string quintet, then later discarded. But the two-piano version (below) was superseded by Brahms’ transformation of its material into a Quintet for Piano and Strings (reckoned as plain Op. 34).

The Quintet — which, by the way will be performed by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet in the Salon Series next March — is, of course, one of the composer’s masterpieces. But the Two-Piano Sonata survives on its own merits. The parallel material is presented cogently, all of it redistributed in consistently keyboard terms, as against the mixed media of the Quintet.

The duo played it with the necessary Brahmsian burliness and power, and on Farley’s wonderful vintage pianos it sounded simply magnificent.

As an encore, the duo played a two-piano arrangement of an energetic tango piece by Astor Piazzolla, but then followed with another, in this case, an eight-hand piano trifle in which the Plano-Del Negro duo were joined as parents by their two young daughters (below). The audience could hardly resist that!

Plano and Del Negro are great discoveries. And once again, the Salon Piano Series has shown itself as one of the exciting, if too-little-known of Madison’s musical treasures.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org


Classical music: This weekend brings two major piano recitals – by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor and Italian duo-pianists Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro – plus a public piano master class

September 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you have already seen from this week’s postings so far, this coming weekend is loaded with conflicting concerts.

One result is that events that would normally receive separate postings must be combined.

Such is the case today, with previews of two very appealing piano concerts plus a master class.

SATURDAY

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the celebrated UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below), a bronze medalist in the Van Cliburn Competition, will perform a terrifically well-planned recital that is a classic case of contrast-and-compare, and reveals how music begets more music.

Here are some notes from the School of Music about the program:

“Christopher Taylor’s conceptual program features Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, arranged by Franz Liszt.

Over 175 years later, New York City-based composer John Corigliano would use Beethoven’s Seventh to inspire his Fantasia on an Ostinato. (You can hear the famous slow movement with the “ostinato,” or continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm, that inspires it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

On the second half, Taylor will feature two takes on the title “Moments Musicaux” or Musical Moments: first, he will play Franz Schubert’s version, published in the last year of his life (1828); then he’ll perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s version from the start of his career.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for non-School of Music students and children. Ticket information is here.

SATURDAY and SUNDAY

On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., as part of the Salon Piano Series, the Italian husband-and-wife piano duo of Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro (below) will hold a FREE and PUBLIC master class with local students at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near the West Towne Mall.

Then on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., in the main showroom at Farley’s, the duo will perform.

The program features: “Pictures from the East” (Bilder aus Osten), Op. 66, by Robert Schumann; Burgmein’s (aka Ricordi) Suite “Les amoureux de Colombine”; Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1-5; “The Moldau” by Bedrich Smetana; and Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, which later became his famous Piano Quintet.

Tickets are $45 for the public and $10 for full-time students.

For more information about tickets and biographies of the performers, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

You can also call (608) 271-2626.


Classical music: Composer-performer John Harbison explains why the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is revisiting “The Musical Offering” by Johann Sebastian Bach for a third time

August 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you have ever attended a concert at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below), which opens this Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., you know how insightful the short commentaries by John Harbison invariably are.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Harbison (below), the co-founder and co-artistic director with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison, has been awarded a MacArthur ‘genius grant” and won a Pulitzer Prize, all while teaching at MIT.

The concerts this weekend focus on Johann Sebastian Bach’s incredible “Musical Offering,” part of which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here is a program note by composer-pianist Harbison, which will probably be complemented by some additional remarks:

”Every musician has the experience of understanding a piece better after they have performed it. A few have careers which welcome (sometimes to a fault) chances to re-perform, hopefully with greater insight, a piece they wish to carry with them and continue to share with colleagues and listeners.

“We have performed two complete Musical Offerings by Bach (below) at Token Creek. Why are we going back to its Trio Sonata? Because it has become necessary, for the fullness of our encounter, to present what is a revision, a reconsideration, a reinforcement of vows, regarding a masterpiece whose carrot remains forever on the stick.

“Such could be said about other elements on this program. One of the subtexts is about the fascinating issue of continuo realization — the piano or harpsichord part — the strange language in which harmonic structure is described to the player in cipher.

“In pieces by Bach this language is strained to the breaking point in works such as The Musical Offering and the E minor sonata for violin and continuo; it is in fact about to disappear, replaced by the explicit writing out, in pitches, all the musical information. Living in the world before and after this decision was taken is one of the preoccupations of this concert.

“In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces (by Haydn and Harbison) is really sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority, a high bar, considered carefully by the management.”

For more information about the five concerts of three different programs, including ticket information, go to: http://tokencreekfestival.org


Classical music: What classical music do you find necessary and why?

August 19, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard many themes for concerts and festivals.

But he really, really likes the title of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below, inside the refurbished barn that serves as a concert hall).

It runs from Aug. 26 through Sept. 3.

Here is a link to complete details about the performers, the three programs and the five concerts that focus especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert, Maurice Ravel and Robert Schumann:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/classical-music-this-years-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-will-explore-necessary-music-by-bach-schubert-schumann-ravel-harbison-and-other-composers-from-aug-26-thr/

The theme or concept is NECESSARY MUSIC.

Of course, as the festival press release says, the Token Creek organizers recognize that the whole idea is subjective, so they refuse to be prescriptive:

“In what way, and for whom is a certain kind of music necessary?

“Certainly the presenters of a chamber music festival would be presumptuous to offer a program as a sort of prescription for listeners. And at Token Creek we won’t.

“So often the music we need arrives by chance, and we did not even know we needed it until it appears. And other times we know exactly what we are missing. And so we offer this year’s programs of pieces that feed the soul.”

The Ear likes that concept.

And he thinks it applies to all of us.

So today he wants to know: What music is NECESSARY FOR YOU and WHAT MAKES IT NECESSARY

Of course, the idea of necessary music changes over time and in different circumstances.

Do you need relief from the anxiety of political news?

Are you celebrating a happy event?

Are you recovering from some kind of personal sadness or misfortune?

But right now, what piece or pieces of music – or even what composer – do you find necessary and why?

In the COMMENT section, please tell us what it is and what makes it necessary?

And please include a link to a YouTube video performance, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will explore “Necessary Music” by Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, Harbison and other composers from Aug. 26 through Sept 3

August 17, 2017
1 Comment

 By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about an annual event that puts on a lot of MUST-HEAR programs:

TOKEN CREEK, WIS. –    In what way, and for whom, is a certain kind of music necessary?

Certainly the presenters of a chamber music festival would be presumptuous to offer a program as a sort of prescription for listeners. And at Token Creek we won’t.

So often the music we need arrives by chance, and we did not even know we needed it until it appears. And other times we know exactly what we are missing. And so we offer this year’s programs of pieces that feed the soul.

Saturday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 27, at 4 p.m., Program I: Continuo

Some works of art are so rich that they sustain a lifetime of inquiry and encounters, each time revealing fresh new insights only possible through sustained engagement, pieces so resilient they admit multiple interpretations, approaches, nuances, shadings.

We open the season with music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below), pieces we’ve played before and some we have not, music that continues to compel for the very reason that it can never be fully plumbed, music that rewards over and over again. In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces is really only that they offer sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority.

Flutist Dawn Lawler (below top), cellist Sara Sitzer (below second) and pianist Jeffrey Stanek (below third join the artistic directors composer-pianist John and violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom) for this opening program.

Works:
BACH Sonata in E minor for violin and continuo, BWV 1023

HAYDN    Trio in F major for flute, cello and piano XV:17

BACH   Two Fugues, from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

HARBISON    Mark the Date, for flute and piano (pre-premiere)

BACH Sonata in G major for violin and continuo, BWV 1021

BACH Three-Voice Ricercar, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

BACH Sonata in C minor, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079

Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Program II: Schubert

A sequel to last year’s all-Schubert program, which offered Die Schöne Müllerin and the “Trout” Quintet, this season we offer two late masterworks by  Schubert (below): the song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song) and the solo piano set of six Moments Musicaux (Musical Moments).

In structure, ingenuity and invention these two large works offer an eloquent counterpoint and complement to one another. We are pleased to welcome back pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (below top), and to introduce tenor Charles Blandy (below middle) with pianist Linda Osborn (below bottom).

Works:

SCHUBERT      Andante, from Sonata in C for Piano Four Hands (“Grand Duo”),  D.812

SCHUBERT     Moments Musicaux, D.780

SCHUBERT      Schwanengesang, D.957

Saturday, Sept. 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 3, at 4 p.m. Program III: Waltz

This program explores the familiar form of the waltz as an unexpectedly flexible and diverse musical type, with uncommon approaches from a wide variety of composers from Schubert through Sur.

We conclude the season with Schumann’s splendid Piano Quartet, whose third movement offers one of the greatest of slow waltzes of all time. (You can hear it performed by the Faure Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We are pleased to introduce violist Becky Menghini (below top) and cellist Kyle Price (below bottom).

Works:

FRITZ KREISLER   Three Old Viennese Melodies for Violin and  Piano

DONALD SUR        Berceuse for Violin and Piano

SCHUBERT      Waltz Sequence

RAVEL     Valses nobles et sentimentales

GEORGE CRUMB    Sonata for Solo Cello

SCHUMANN     Quartet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op.   47

The Token Creek Festival has been called a gem, a treasure nestled in the heart of Wisconsin cornfields, a late-summer fixture just outside of Madison.

Now in its 28th season, the Festival has become known for its artistic excellence, diverse and imaginative programming, a deep engagement with the audience, and a surprising, enchanting and intimate performance venue in a comfortable refurbished barn.

The 2017 festival offers five events to close the summer concert season, Aug. 26–Sept. 3.

Performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek (10 minutes north of Madison, near Sun Prairie) with ample parking available.

The charmingly rustic venue—indoors and air-conditioned with modern comforts—is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended.

Concert tickets are $32 (students $12). Reservations can be secured in several ways:

More information about the Token Creek Festival and all events and artists can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org or by calling 608-241-2525.


Classical music: The Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Piano announces its new season of four concerts

August 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The reliably virtuosic and musically enjoyable Salon Piano Series has just announced its 2017-18 season.

A piano duo, piano soloists and the Pro Arte Quartet provide traditional salon concert experiences with informal seating and restored pianos.

The 2017-18 Salon Piano Series season again includes piano soloists and ensembles typical of 19th-century European salon concerts, with well-known concert artists from Italy, Russia, Israel and Ireland.

According to a press release, the season’s offerings are:

Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro Duo (below) on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Italian husband and wife piano duo Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro kick off the season with Schumann’s “Pictures from the East” (Bilder aus Osten, Op. 66), Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1-5, “The Moldau” by Smetana, and Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, the earlier version of his great Piano Quintet. The duo will perform on one piano for the first half of the program and on two for the second half. (You can hear them perform Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ilya Yakushev (below) on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Returning by popular demand, Ilya Yakushev will perform an exhilarating program of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Tchaikovsky’s “Sentimental Waltz,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in his November concert.

Alon Goldstein (below top) and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, March 10, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2018 at 4 p.m.

To accommodate the crowds, Salon Piano Series booked two performances for Alon Goldstein and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet in March. Goldstein will perform selected Scarlatti sonatas solo, then the Pro Arte Quartet and bassist David Scholl will join him for Mozart Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in a reduced arrangement, and the Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

John O’Conor (below) on Saturday, May 12, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

To cap off the season in May, the great Irish pianist John O’Conor will perform Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in his first Salon Piano Series appearance.

Visit salonpianoseries.org for complete concert programs, and artist information.

All concerts are at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west wide near West Towne Mall. All concert includes a post-concert artist reception.

Tickets are $50 at the door or $45 in advance; season tickets are $150.

You can purchase tickets online at brownpapertickets.com or in-person at Farley’s House of Pianos. Service fees may apply.

About the Salon Piano Series

Now in its fifth season, Salon Piano Series was founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and offers audiences the chance to hear artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 2017
3 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 radio 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 photos for this review.

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6


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