Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sunday Classics: Surprise! With wizards like Bach and Mozart, you never know what you may hear next


The Freiburg Orchestra plays the fourth and final movement, Menuet-et-al., of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.
Menuet, part 1 [0:04] + repeat [0:21]
-- part 2 [0:39] + repeat [0:56]
Trio, part 1 [1:14] + repeat [1:26]
-- part 2 [1:38] + repeat [2:09]
Menuet repeat: part 1 [2:42], part 2 [259]
Polonaise, part 1 [3:19] + repeat [3:39]
-- part 2 [3:59] + repeat [4:19]
Menuet repeat: part 1 [4:39], part 2 [4:58]
(Polonaise) Trio, part 1 [5:17] + repeat [5:33]
-- part 2 [5:49] + repeat [6:05]
Menuet repeat: part 1 [6:23], part 2 [6:41]

by Ken

We're listening today to two musical movements that have a lot in common. They're both fairly extended, and their extension comes in large part from a great deal of straight repetition built into their forms, and since their melodic material isn't the absolutely most memorable of which their august composers were capable, they don't necessarily draw that much attention to themselves apart from their length, especially coming as they both do from sets of six works which are watersheds in the history of music.

However, for me these movements are both treasures, for the buried treasures they contain. It may just be an accident, of course, or a pair of accidents. After all, it may be that composers really don't know when they've stumbled on something as arrestingly delicious as these two "surprises," and simply strew them about their works indiscriminately when they happen to happen. Or it may be, as I am beginning to think, that these composers were aware that these movements, exquisitely well-crafted though they are, have a certain plainness that cries out for, well, something special.

I mentioned last week in writing about Bach's cantatas: "If I were setting out to 'sell' Bach, or even to try to sketch the Bach who most matters to me, I would start with the secular music -- with, say, the Brandenburg Concertos and the solo-cello suites." And here we are at the Brandenburgs, the set of six concertos -- concertos in the baroque "concerto grosso" style, not to be confused with the later virtuoso-solo concerto -- Bach wrote for presentation to the Margraf of Brandenburg, in which he seemed to be trying to incorporate everything he knew about the form, which is pretty much everything there is to know about it.

I suppose Nos. 2 and 5 will always be the fan favorites among the Brandenburgs, and you won't hear me say a discouraging word about either. There's a reason, or rather a zillion reasons, why they're so loved. But somewhere along the line I found my fascination shifting to the "presentation" piece, No. 1, which has an extra movement (four instead of the customary three) and was clearly meant to be an attention-getter.

And what a strange idea to finish the piece off with a Menuet, even this enormously expanded Menuet-Trio I-Polacca-Trio II-Menuet, with repetitions of the Menuet at every opportunity (and an open question as to whether the repeats within the Menuet were meant to be observed at every repetition, which would make the movement that much longer.

Our "surprise" is what I've just called "Trio II." Bach just calls it "Trio," but I've added the roman numerals to make clear that it's a new piece and not a repeat of the Trio of the Menuet proper. No, this is the Trio of the just-introduced Polacca, or Polonaise. Don't ask me what's Polish about this somewhat characterless Polonaise -- you'll note that the Freiburg performers deal with this section [at 3:19] by taking it very fast. But when, after yet another repeat of the Menuet, we get to the Trio of the Polonaise, ah, magic! On an obvious technical level, note that after all the rest of the movement being in triple meter -- think "wsltz" -- this second Trio is in a spitfire 2/4, a "duple" meter.

A "trio" in this sense, simply refers to the contrasting central section, in a typical A-B-A form, of a dance like a minuet. Originally it was actually performed by a subsection of three players -- and you'll note that the Trio proper of the Menuet of the First Brandenburg [at 1:14] is scored for two oboes and bassoon! Oh, that Bach! (Actually, the second Trio is also literally a trio, for two horns plus the three oboes playing in unison.)

From its first recording of Mozart's last ten quartets, for Teldec in the late '70s, the Alban Berg Quartet -- consisting at the time of violinists Günter Pichler and Klaus Maetzl, violist Hatto Beyerle, and cellist Valentin Erben -- plays the theme-and-variations third movement, Andante, of Quartet No. 18 in A major, K. 464. The "surprise" comes at 8:40.
Theme, part 1 [0:00] + repeat [0:20]
-- part 2 [0:38] + repeat [1:03]
Variation I, part 1 [1:28] + repeat [1:47]
-- part 2 [2:06] + repeat [2:30]
Variation II, part 1 [2:54] + repeat [3:12]
-- part 2 [3:31] + repeat [3:53]
Variation III, part 1 [4:16] + repeat [4:35]
-- part 2 [4:54] + repeat [5:19]
Variation IV, part 1 [5:44] + repeat [6:03]
-- part 2 [6:22] + repeat [6:53]
Variation V, part 1a [7:26], part 1b [7:45]
-- part 2a [8:03], part 2b [8:22]
Variation VI, part 1 [8:40] + repeat [8:59]
-- part 2 [9:16] + repeat [9:39]
-- part 3 [10:00] -- viola takes over "surprise"
-- -- 2nd violin takes over "surprise" at 10:17
-- -- 1st violin takes over "surprise" at 10:26
Recapitulation [10:45] with cello "surprise" at 11:18

Haydn first heard the set of six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him, written between 1781 and 1785, in Mozart's Vienna apartment in January and February 1785. Mozart was just turning 29 then, while Haydn was nearing his 53rd birthday. This is one of those artistic intersections where we can't do much better than just to stand back and behold.

The idea of writing instrumental works like sonatas and concertos in sets of six was carried over from the baroque, and Haydn had invented the string quartet form as we know it writing quartets in sets of six. By the time Mozart set out to write his "set of six," he had already written more than a dozen quartets, and Haydn had written his Opp. 1, 2, 9, 17, 20, and (just recently) 33.

It was after hearing these six quartets of Mozart's that Haydn made his famous declaration to the younger composer's father:

"Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

In terms of the compositional challenge Haydn set himself, his string quartets remain an unmatched and almost unimaginable achievement. Although nearly every one of his quartets is a remarkable work in its own right, the fact is that they weren't conceived as individual works. They really were created in and as sets -- in effect, 24-movement compositions. Each of the six opening movements, slow movements, minuets, and finales not only forms a a harmonious entity with its own partners but complements and contrasts with all the others.

What seems to have gotten Mozart to thinking was the additional potential that could be realized by thinking of each of the six works as more of an independent entity. And that, fired by the unique force of his own imagination, led him to explorations and inspirations that produced, well, the overwhelming effect on Haydn. In a sense, all of Haydn's remaining quartets (the Opp. 50, 54/55, 64, 71/74, and 76 sets of six, the Seven Last Words, and the two glorious quartets of Op. 77, clearly intended as the start of a never-completed set of six) are tributes to Mozart. Sadly, from Op. 71 on, they were posthumous tributes.

It's worth remembering that when Beethoven set out to write string quartets, he too tried to honor the set-of-six form, in his Op. 18, and he went even farther than Mozart in realizing the individuality of the six quartets. He clearly recognized the limits to which you can push the "set" compositional idea, and while his next quartets were written as a set of three, his Op. 59, that was the end of his dalliance with quartet sets.

I don't think I need to say much about the Andante of K. 464, the fifth of the six Mozart "Haydn" Quartets. Its variation form should help in following it. Note that the names I've slapped on are strictly mine, not Mozart's, and are for signpost identification only. What I've called "part two" of the Theme is already a variation, and within each two-part "Variation" the second is already a variation of the first. Note too that in general the "part 2"s are longer than the "part 1"s. The "part 1"s are good, solid eight-bar units; the "part 2"s are mostly stretched-out ten-bar ones -- swelling to 14 in what I've called Variation IV, which is followed by a variation (my no. V) that contains no straight repeats; it's a through-composed 32-bar structure in four neat eight-bar sections.

And then in Variation VI, Mozart cuts loose, and it's in the cello part that it happens, for the longest time seemingly ignored by the violins and viola, though eventually even they will get a turn at this strange and wonderful invention. It's certainly possible, by the way, for the quartet cellist -- with the consent of his/her partners, of course, to make even more of this out-of-nowhere inspiration, something I wouldn't mind at all.

Let me just call attention to one incidental delight in this movement: what I've called part 1 of Variation III. Note the little figure sounded by the two violins, then the quick intervention of the viola, whose downward figure is quickly undergirded by the cello, playing nothing more than a whole-note D followed by an eighth-note E on the downbeat. Then a similar mini-section follows, and growing out of it the cello gets to play a few solo notes, passed on to the viola and then the violins. It would be hard to be more economical with musical materials in this eight-bar unit, or to achieve more magical results.

Well, one final note. This is, as I've noted a long movement, almost twice as long in running time -- depending in part on how scrupulous the players are in observing every last repeat -- and the tempo marking is "Andante," a standard slow-movement marking. This is unquestionably the "slow movement" of K. 464. But it doesn't often sound slow, because much of it is written in (relatively) lickety-split 32nd notes. This is a master at play.

UPDATE: I actually uploaded two recordings of the Andante of K. 464, but the one I originally did my timings to seemed to disappear, so I redid all the timings and went with the ABQ version. Now the other one has miraculously reappeared. It's by the Smetana Quartet, from their 1975 Denon recording -- the last of the three recordings of theirs of K. 464 I own (which doesn't mean they made only three, just that I have only three):

Theme [0:00, 0:39], Variation I [1:28, 2:08], Variation II [2:57, 3:36], Variation III [4:24, 5:04], Variation IV [5:29, 6:10], Variation V [6:46], Variation VI ("surprise") [7:59, 8:36, 8:57], Recapitulation [9:42]

Note that the Smetana discreetly skips "part 2" repeats after the first couple. Note too that Smetana cellist Antonin Kohout (the only cellist in the group's 44-year history, 1945-1989) has more fun with our "surprise" figure than the ABQ's Valentin Erben (the only cellist in his quartet's 37-year history, 1971-2008).


For Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on records, the conductors' names that pop first into my mind are Pablo Casals (on two Sony budget CDs -- Nos. 1-3and Nos. 4-6,each with an orchestral suite as filler), Benjamin Britten (Decca),Adrian Boult, maybe Otto Klemperer.

UPDATE: As regular Sunday Classics readers know, these posts grow out of, reflect, and often trigger or at least prolong my musical occupations of the moment, so just because I finished with this post doesn't mean I've finished with the Brandenburg Concertos. This is the sort of music that, once I'm wound up, I don't easily release. So when I went out earlier today (to a tea tasting, of all things: teas that calm the body -- very nice!), I packed a couple of Brandenburg CDs of which I didn't have clear recall. And as I listen to the recording the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centermade in 1995 for Delos, vigorously played and bold and vivacious in spirit, I'm thinking this might be an excellent choice if you're looking for a more stripped-down kind of performance that yet steers clear of what I think of as the Baroque Perversion. I wouldn't pay Amazon's $35 asking price, but I see there are vendors selling the set for not much more than $16 plus shipping.

As for Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets, there have been a bunch of fine recordings. As between the Alban Berg Quartet's two traversals of the last ten Mozart quartets (the "Haydn" Quartets and the four quartets that followed), I'm not saying I prefer the now-harder-to-find earlier Teldec version,but I'm also not saying I don't. The later EMI setis more confident, even assertive, but it's also slicker. (EMI now offers a seven-CD set,which you may find cheaper than the five-CD set of just the string quartets, adding to them the only two of Mozart's sublime string quintets the ABQ recorded as well as the two piano quartets with Alfred Brendel.)


Barring technical glitches (which I'm not at all sure I have the power to bar), the first clues will be available Friday night, with give-away follow-ups scheduled for Saturday night. The composer in question will be the subject of next Sunday's post.


Here is the updated list.

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At 7:55 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

The Smetana Quartet folks: you've got taste, man. One of my all-time favorite string ensembles. Their complete Dvorak quartet series is out again, and well worth the purchase.


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