Thursday, August 17, 2017

Record Review: Salonen conducts Stravinsky

I never do reviews of current record releases here. Not sure why; it just doesn't seem to fit the blog somehow. I do have a series of Retro Record Reviews where I review some old recordings, which is what I usually buy. But I just finished listening to a newly-purchased box of CDs and was shocked to discover that it is a new release, April 2017:

The recordings themselves were made over the last 20 years or so, but the integral release is new and available from Amazon for $25. Great value. And a great recording. The Rite is brisk and precise and well-handled. I'm really not a reviewer--I suspect I don't listen much for the kind of thing specialist classical reviewers do. But I have heard a lot of different versions of the Rite and  I think I prefer this one.

But there is a whole lot more in the box. With the exception of the Symphony of Psalms and the Symphony in C and a few other pieces, this box contains nearly all the Stravinsky you will ever need. There are seven discs:
  1. Petrushka, Orpheus
  2. Firebird, Jeu de cartes
  3. Sacre du printemps, Symphony in 3 Movements
  4. Pulcinella, Renard, Ragtime, Octet
  5. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra
  6. Apollon musagète, Concerto in D, Cantata
  7. Oedipus rex
Orchestras include the Philharmonia, the LA Philharmonic and the Swedish Radio Symphony.

I find Salonen's conducting style unusual but compelling. Here he is conducting the LA Philharmonic in the Sacrificial Dance from part 2 of the Rite:

Damn. You can take your heavy metal and, well, you know!

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 1

The next element taken up by Taruskin in his monumental book on Stravinsky that I am loosely following here, is the influence of his peers and how that gave him a window on the wider world outside the circle of Rimsky-Korsakov. The key figure was Mikhail Gnesin (1883 - 1957) a fellow-student and later music educator who taught both Khrennikov and Khachaturyan among his composition students.

Gnesin was well-connected with the artistic circles outside of music, particularly the Symbolist group that included the radical poets of the day. He set a lot of poetry of the group, including that of Alexander Blok, and they encouraged him to experiment in order to find a musical style that matched their aesthetic striving. This group was also connected to the organizers of the Evenings of Contemporary Music that presented concerts in St. Petersburg from 1901 to 1912. One of the leaders was Alfred Nurok (1863 - 1919), a musical dilettante and iconoclast. Another figure was Walter Nouvel (1871 - 1949), a "Sunday composer" and recognized arbiter of taste in contemporary music.

Despite the radical ambitions of these figures, the first several years of the Evenings were characterized by moderation. Western composers such as Franck, d'Indy, Reger, Debussy and Ravel were interspersed with works by local composers such as Rachmaninoff, Cherepnin, Glazunov, and a very small amount of Scriabin. Nonetheless, to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, this was definitely the "other camp."

Gnesin managed to have a foot in each camp: he did not find the nasty criticisms of Rimsky-Korsakov by Nouvel justified (but with a grain of truth), but at the same time his music had admirers in the circle of Rimsky intimates. As one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "advanced" students, Gnesin sometimes wrote specifically to appeal to his taste by carefully eliminating academic transgressions and adding bits of contrapuntal effects. Stravinsky did the same as we can see not only in the Scherzo fantastique but also his Etudes for piano, op. 7.

Stravinsky, along with the Rimsky students he was closest to, Maximilian Steinberg and Gnesin, was featured in a concert of the Evenings of Contemporary Music on December 27, 1907 in performances of settings of Symbolist poetry. This was the first time that Stravinsky's music was performed before a paying audience.

Steinberg, of Polish Jewish descent, was a very talented student and his gifts were praised to the skies by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He married Rimsky's daughter Nadya and succeeded Glazunov as professor of orchestration at the conservatory. Indeed, he was considerably more highly regarded than Stravinsky, whom he displaced as heir apparent of the New Russian School. Some of Stravinsky's later resentment of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may be a result of their favoring Steinberg's talents above his. Before The Firebird, this was rather a general critical opinion. Taruskin uncovers a revealing quote by the reviewer Karatïgin appearing in the journal Apollon in the fall of 1910:
However highly we may value the musical wit of Stravinsky's latest works--the Scherzo fantastique and especially the orchestral fantasia Fireworks, a piece dedicated to Steinberg and absolutely dazzling in its immense richness of harmonic and coloristic invention--still and all one cannot deny that from the point of view of sheer musical content and profundity of musical ideas, Stravinsky's work is much inferior to Steinberg's. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 395]
The fact that his music was, compared to that of Steinberg's, regarded by quite a few of his contemporaries as being a bit lightweight might have been, according to Taruskin, a powerful motive for Stravinsky's modernist revolt.

For our envoi, let's listen to some music by Stravinsky's rival. This is the Symphony No. 2 dating from 1909 and the piece that was evaluated as being of greater quality than Stravinsky's. The performers are the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi:

That sounds rather Brahmsian to me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 6

Stravinsky's journey away from the Belyayevets circle around Rimsky-Korsakov begins with the setting of a poem by one Sergey Gorodetsky, a much-acclaimed poet whose book Yar was published in 1907 (Stravinsky's setting is from the same year). The section in the book titled "Yarila" is devoted to paganistic and shamanistic poems and has been pointed to repeatedly as part of the cultural background to The Rite of Spring. This kind of cultural reference is referred to as "Scythian," about which more later.

The poem Stravinsky set, titled "Vesná," is about young love and the tolling of a cloister bell. The sound of bells and the setting of artificial folk songs goes back to Glinka and Musorgsky in Russian music. Stravinsky's performance of his new song at a gathering in October 1907 was not well-liked and Rimsky-Korsakov termed it "wildly unrestrained and harmonically nonsensical." There was a growing gap regarding the aesthetic role of folklore: for composers like Rimsky-Korsakov it was mere "content," something cited for color, but it was not something that flowed into and influenced "style," the fantastic/chromatic side. Here is a performance of the song with Marija Brajković, soprano and Radoslav Spasić, piano:

The poet Gorodetsky had made an intense study of ancient peasant rites and customs, which could still be witnessed in Russia up into the 1930s and in 1908 Stravinsky set another poem by him with the title Rosyanka (Khlïstovskaya) which is rather untranslatable: the first word means "dew" and the second refers to a quasi-Pentecostal sect dating to the 17th century and much persecuted by the Orthodox establishment. Stravinsky's setting does not reveal his later immersion in folklore, at this point it is rather retrospective in style, recalling perhaps what Musorgsky might have done.

There is a rather curious song from this time that reveals more of the future Stravinsky, his little Pastorale set to the text: "A-oo, A-oo." It's open and airy texture and particularly its ceaseless sixteenth-notes give it a genuinely Stravinskian sound. Here is the original version:

Taruskin speculates that another influence on this piece, with its evocation of a French musette, might have been early music as the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in that same year, 1907, was giving her first Russian tour--she gave two recitals in St. Petersburg in February and March. We can't be sure that Stravinsky attended either concert, but one piece performed, a "Styrische Tanz" by Lanner, would turn up later in the third tableau of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Aesthetics, part 5

It is pretty clear that aesthetic objects are phenomenally objective: we don't have any difficulty in distinguishing between what is in the painting and our reaction to it. Nor do we confuse our feelings with those of Hamlet on the stage. Even in music, it is quite easy to distinguish between the music itself and how it makes us feel. But one of the things that leads to a relativistic view of aesthetics is the fact that a lot of criticism confuses the phenomenally objective and the phenomenally subjective. A great deal of arts criticism seems to go out of its way to confuse the two. A critic referring to a "feeling" of solidity in a Cézanne landscape might be referring to either the painting or his reaction to it. The word "effect" is also used ambiguously. Indeed, the whole class of what Beardsley calls "affective terms," ones that contain some reference to the effect of the work on the percipient, need to be considered carefully for they may contain little objective information about the work itself, but merely record a critic's response. If he is careful about recording what details in the work lead to his response, that can be useful, but sometimes, or often, it may be an eccentric response of little objective value. [Referring to Beardsley, op. cit. pp 38 to 42]

If I could give a musical example, sometimes I debate with commentators here about the aesthetic value of the symphonies of Mahler which I have mentioned were once favorites of mine but which I now find nearly unlistenable because they seem melodramatic and neurotic to me. I am describing a subjective impression which is not, of course, objective criticism. If I were to take the time and analyze just what it is in a Mahler symphony that sounds melodramatic and neurotic to me, then that would be a decent piece of criticism. I suspect I have not done so because it would be quite time-consuming and also because I have a vague inkling that it would involve some foundational work on what neurosis in music might consist in. In other words, it could get very involved indeed. My subjective impression is pretty clear to me though!

I have mentioned before the interesting issue of the ontological status of a piece of music and by this formidable phrase I mean the interesting fact that we might hear several different performances of a piece of music that we would all reckon as the same piece of music. Beardsley handles this by describing these different performances as different presentations of the same aesthetic object. A particular presentation of an aesthetic object is one experienced by a particular person on a particular occasion. Certain presentations may be more adequate than others. Generally we regard the aesthetic object itself as not being identical with any particular presentation. Some critics, however, are impressionistic in that they are constantly giving their impression of the presentation without much effort to distinguish it from the aesthetic object itself. It may be easy to write that the musical composition seemed formless, but that might have been your impression simply because you failed to perceive the form on first hearing.

Beardsley gives a set of six principles that he calls the Postulates of Criticism that lay out the way to conceive of the relationship between aesthetic objects and presentations of them in order to render objective criticism possible. Here they are:

  1. The aesthetic object is a perceptual object; that is, it can have presentations.
  2. Presentations of the same aesthetic object may occur at different times and to different people.
  3. Two presentations of the same aesthetic object may differ from each other.
  4. The characteristics of an aesthetic object may not be exhaustively revealed in any particular presentation of it.
  5. A presentation may be veridical. that is, the characteristics of the presentation may correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object.
  6. A presentation may be illusory; that is, some of the characteristics of the presentation may fail to correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object. [Beardsley, op. cit. p. 46]
This is not, of course, an argument for the acceptance of these postulates, but they are fairly widely assumed amongst critics, at least ones who think about what they do.

Beardsley mentions as an example different hearings of Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. One day you hear it on the radio, another time you listen to a clip of it on YouTube on your laptop, one day you hear a live performance of it and perhaps one day you sit down and study the score. These are all different presentations of the same aesthetic object, but some are more adequate than others and they all have different tonal and interpretive characteristics. But I think it would be widely accepted that in experiencing these different presentations we are experiencing the same aesthetic object. This is a necessary first step in countering the view that all aesthetic experience is merely subjective.

Now let's listen to this very fine piece by Bartók, the Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. This is the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: 

I remember doing a Bartók seminar with a rather crusty composer who got rather upset with me when I pointed out that the first movement is a fugue. Which it is, of course, but his ideological stance was that as Bartók is one of the most important figures in musical modernism in the 20th century, we always have to look at his music in terms of its modernistic elements and NOT in terms of its relationship with the past.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Book on Guitar Technique

I never google myself as it seems, well, narcissistic. But I just switched my default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo (for reasons you might well guess!) and tried it out by searching my name. Apparently I have namesakes who are state senators, dermatologists and arrested for something or other. But if you narrow it down by searching for Bryan Townsend, guitar, you get me, basically. So I discovered that a technique book I wrote a number of years ago is still available through Amazon and it has a rather nice review:
The book is thorough, informative, and civilized. It is a somewhat toned-down and non-shrill alternative to Tennant's "Pumping Nylon" which appeals to the same market with its gimmicky title and locker room odor. One cannot dismiss Tennant's book, which successfully covers much of the same material, but it's not the only game in town, and I always found the concept of "pumping nylon" to be marginally offensive although obviously a successful sale tactic. I really prefer Townsend's book and recommend it.
So, if you need a book on guitar technique, I guess you need not hesitate!

Here is my recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra that you can listen to while you shop:


What Replaces Aesthetics?

Here is an article from the Clyde Fitch Report that makes a suggestion:
When questions about the personal character and political orthodoxy of the artist dominate reviews and decisions about casting, staffing and representation drown out questions of beauty and form, there is  a problem. Not because the latter questions aren’t valid, but because if the sole purpose of art becomes the service of a predetermined, rigidly defined political end, there is a danger that there will be no more art. There will be only entertaining propaganda.
There are some interesting parallels with the demands of socialist realism in the Soviet Union--which makes sense because the ideological positions are not so different in structure.
Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he’s a super talented one who changed English forever. He can’t be written out of the conversation. We must refuse to abide by criticism that is so political that it doesn’t bother to cross the road to aesthetics. At the most basic level, isn’t the main question, “Is it good?” not “Is it problematic?”
It’s easy to understand how we got here. We exist in an intellectual climate, particularly on the left, that seeks to identify power above truth and, consequently, beauty. Moreover, a political climate that is increasingly chaotic and hostile would make anyone prioritize politics over all. But this is so painfully shortsighted. If we don’t want to lose what we are fighting for to the pragmatics of the fight, we must again find a way to talk about beauty first and politics next. We are obligated to realize that the end of aesthetics is what would be really problematic.
The only problem here is that the writer, Katie Kelaidis, doesn't seem to realize that aesthetics was done away with a long time ago--all we have left are the fumes.

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 5

Taruskin has a long section discussing how Stravinky's Scherzo fantastique was inspired by an essay written by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1901 titled La vie des abeilles (The Life of the Bee). All references to Maeterlinck were later suppressed, likely to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the writer (ironically, much later Maeterlinck himself was accused of a classic example of academic plagiarism from the Afrikaner poet and scientist Eugène Marais). But despite that, Taruskin was able to trace quite a number of connections between the essay and the scherzo. I'm going to press ahead, however, as it is simply too time-consuming to relate all of the myriad details covered in Taruskin's book, though Stravinsky's obsessive focus on the octatonic and whole-tone collections should be mentioned. We do want to get to the Rite sooner or later!

Stravinsky's next piece, another symphonic scherzo, is the Fireworks that occupied him through the fall of 1908 and into the following year. The piece is both briefer than the Scherzo, and much more complex. One important element is a clash between the octatonic collection and the tonic scale of the key, E major--this is typified by the clash between the octatonic C natural and the diatonic C sharp. Here is Taruskin's example:

op. cit. p. 339

The harmonies are rich progressions of whole-tone formations and French sixths connected by chromatic chords that have no common-practice equivalents. Here is another example from Taruskin of chord forms in Fireworks and their linking elements:

op. cit. p. 342
Fireworks shows a remarkable progression for the young composer. As Taruskin summarizes:
In Fireworks, Stravinsky exploited to the very hilt the devices of harmony, texture, and orchestration he had learned from his teacher, but in no real sense did he go beyond them. True, the piece no longer sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov: the harmonies are more unremittingly complex; they are more varied; above all, the harmonic rhythm is quicker ... Fireworks is not "modern," merely up-to-date and therefore dated. It represents at its very limit the kind of petty artistic progress Rimsky-Korsakov stood for. [op. cit. p. 344-5]
Let's stop here for today and listen to Fireworks. This is the Columbia Orchestra conducted by the composer: