Monday, July 31, 2006

In The Moment, Part 2

In the previous article on this topic, I introduced the concept of a “moment” in music; a time in a piece in which for a short time the piece seems to reach its emotional climax. It’s the stretch of the music that we all anxiously await and seems to capture everything that the piece is trying to be.

We identified a few examples: the recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the recapitulation in the first movement of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, the cadenza from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, the recapitulation from the Mars chapter of Holst’s The Planets, and the flute “solo” in the 4th movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

Let’s continue the list, still sticking with classical music. Well, I’m a pianist by heart and I’ve always loved fumbling my way through the great concertos, so, once again, I’ll cite a piano concerto. Piano concertos tend to be generally beloved in the classical repertoire, and composers themselves often regarded their piano concertos to be of their most important works, so I guess I don’t feel too guilty about it. This time, I want to discuss the finale of the 1st Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky. The concerto itself is one of the most revered pieces for pianists, but many tend to focus on the first movement. Rightly so, as it is 20 or so minutes of treacherous, but equally beautiful music (the opening theme is one of the more famous ones in all of classical music). However, focusing solely on this first movement forgets two other wonderful movements, the second with a romantic theme as good as Tchaikovsky has ever penned, and the third a boisterous allegro firmly rooted in the Russian romantic style.

In this third movement, we are first introduced to the main theme – a pseudo-scherzo bouncing around between the notes themselves as well as the pianist and the orchestra. After the movement settles down, the second theme is introduced by the orchestra and then repeated by the pianist. It is this theme that I wish to focus on.

It is repeated once more in this fashion a few minutes later, before the final interlude leading to the climax. This interlude features strings working their way up the scale using the first 4 notes of this second theme. When it finally reaches the peak, the piano takes over with a blistering set of octaves (what we pianists all trained for). And then, similar to the moment in the Rachmaninoff cadenza, the “pause”. The pianist and the orchestra take a quick breath before crashing down in unison to repeat the theme once more. In my opinion, despite the greatness of the first movement, the whole concerto is summed up in these 30 seconds, as the piece races to its finale a few seconds later. In addition to its majesty, I also believe (but can’t prove) that at least 2 other notable concertos, the Grieg Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, use the exact same technique, copied from this moment. Let’s take a listen [TCHAIKOVSKY EXCERPT].

Let’s move on with one final (final!) example from a concerto. This time, however, I’ll choose another instrument: the violin. There are a few violin concertos regarded as the greats – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky are all in that club. Another of the most popular is that by Mendelssohn. It’s main theme is another example of those classic melodies that most have heard and will never die, the violin singing it on top of the orchestra to open the concerto. This theme appears throughout the opening movement, but never in more beautiful a fashion as its reprise coming out of the cadenza. The cadenza begins with a series of arpeggios of varying tempos reaching the stratosphere of the violin’s capabilities. Remember these faster arpeggios for a moment as the violin moves into trills, double stops, and octaves. Once again these arpeggios return, slowed down at first before settling into the main tempo. Finally, the orchestra, led by the woodwinds, returns for a quick recapitulation of the main theme, and for about 15 seconds there is a perfect harmony between the violin and orchestra, the soloist and accompaniment, and the melody and harmony. And topping all of that off is that it all happens with one of the most beautiful melodies in all of classical music. [MENDELSSOHN EXCERPT].

Ok, enough with the concertos already! Let’s move to a pure orchestral piece and an extremely famous one at that. This piece is one of the more odd pieces in classical music – it’s form and function was so different than mostly anything we’d seen before. Maurice Ravel started Bolero as a commission for a Spanish ballet, and it ended up being a single-movement orchestral piece, starting from a soft snare drum (which repeats for the entire piece), gradually building up before the final climax and completion. The piece is predominantly in C Major, but towards the end, for only 8 bars, it switches to E Major before returning back to C Major for the ultimate finale, in which the bass drum finally enters after 15 minutes of absence. It’s this ending sequence which I find so fascinating. The piece is setup such that the audience gets almost hypnotized by the ostinato rhythm of the snare drum and repetition of the melody. For the bulk of the piece we are in this trance, until finally in the last minute he changes the key, leading to that final climax to the ending chord (B-flat chord down to the C). If you sit through the entire piece, it feels almost like a release of all the energy building up throughout – a complete musical catharsis. A great moment. [RAVEL EXCERPT].

There’s so many more pieces I can select to round out my list, but there are other things to talk about and we haven’t even left classical music yet, so I’ll give you one final moment. This is another interesting one, in that it has two versions, an original version for piano and numerous orchestrated version(s) (by other composers). While there are a handful of examples of this happening, I’m speaking of perhaps the most famous, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote the piece for solo piano, and our friend from earlier, Maurice Ravel, orchestrated it many years later. The piece itself is a fascinating journey through musical interpretations of the art by Viktor Hartmann, though he composed it for a fictitious exhibition, which, when an exhibition actually did occur, only three of the works for which Mussorgsky composed music were displayed. The piece goes through numerous moods and styles, generally connected by a theme called the “Promenade” to represent walking from once piece to the next. The last two pieces are translated as “The Hut of Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate Of Kiev”. This last work has to do with a celebratory gate that Hartmann had designed for Tsar Alexander II, which was never created. As a result, Mussorgsky made it his most majestic piece of the suite, erupting from a torrid descending glissando to end off “Baba Yaga”.

The piano version is powerful enough, crashing down chord after chord to its end. However, in Ravel’s version, the entire orchestra with bells and percussion is tough to top. There’s very little setup needed for this, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end this series than with the final bars of this piece, the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. [MUSSORGSKY EXCERPT].

Well, there you have it. 9 of what I consider to be the great “moments” in classical music. I hope you enjoyed the list and also the listens. There are of course countless others, and, in many ways, it’s arguable that every piece has its moment. Once again, enjoy the moment!

Recommended recordings:
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1in Bb Minor. Van Cliburn, Kiril Kondrashin, RCA Symphony (RCA Victor)
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E Minor. Yehudi Menuhin, William Furtwangler, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI)
Ravel – Bolero. Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony (Decca)
Mussorgsky – Pictures At An Exhibition. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor)

In The Moment, Part 1

The moment. Often when I listen to music, there comes a time in a piece in which for a brief moment, the whole piece seems to reveal itself – all of its beauty and majesty in what feels like just a few bars. Sometimes this lasts a few seconds, sometimes it lasts a few minutes – however long, you find yourself listening to these pieces waiting for that moment and often exit the moment feeling satisfied or even exhausted. Now that is a moment!

This article is all about that: a journey through what I consider to be some of the greatest of these moments in all of western classical music. As I look through my list, I know that I won’t be able to get through even a third of those I have identified, and I’m also aware that I’m going to miss many, but hopefully we have a good start.

So where to begin? Well, let’s start with a bit of music theory. The standard sonata form (symphonic form) is set up perfectly to create such a moment – in a portion of the form known as the recapitulation. A main theme is introduced, other themes follow, they are transformed and developed, and just about at the time that the piece is about to go off the rails, the composer brings back the primary theme in glorious form. The recapitulation.

And arguably the most powerful example of this can be found in the first movement of the 9th symphony of Beethoven. The movement begins quietly and darkly, introducing the syncopated rhythms of the strings before the eruption into the full orchestral main theme that we all know and love. For several minutes, additional themes are introduced and weave in and out, playing with each other in darkness and light. The strings move into a softer section right around 8 minutes into the movement, and a few seconds later all of a sudden they begin to descent while the orchestra swells suddenly into a storm and all time seems to stop. The entire piece seems to revolve around this moment. The recapitulation of all recapitulations. And for me, I have always felt that Beethoven’s entire life is captured in this single minute of music. All of his anger and all of his love – captured masterfully here. Let’s take a listen [BEETHOVEN EXCERPT]

Well, we could spend all day talking about all the “moments” in this single piece (I didn’t even touch the finale!), but, for now, I think it’s best to move on.

Sticking with the idea of recapitulations, this time we move to one of less majesty but of high beauty instead. Johannes Brahms was born 6 years after Beethoven passed away, but it is clear that he was heavily influenced by the romantic trend that Beethoven put into high gear. As an example leading to our second “moment”, the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto ends poetically with the piano floating in legato couplets on top of the orchestra, singing its way to the third movement. In Brahms’ own 2nd Piano Concerto, this idea is repeated in the first movement with the recapitulation of the gorgeous B flat theme. The piano and orchestra wind themselves down to complete silence and the piano takes over ascending from the lower registers to the higher, resting there inverse repeating upon itself. From within this atmosphere, the strings return, joining the piano in a brief duet worthy of angels. For a few seconds, the two dance with each other and with the main themes before the rest of the orchestra joins in and the piece continues on. Another brief moment of magic. [BRAHMS EXCERPT]

I’m going to stick with the pattern of piano concertos for my next choice. Before I reveal it, I’m going to put a few disclaimers out there. Number one, not all recordings of this piece contain this moment – the composer created an another (the original) version which is often the recorded choice. Number two, many argue that this “original” version is the better one anyway, including the composer himself (of whom a recording we are all fortunate to have available). Enough clues; got it yet? I’m speaking of the cadenza in the third piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff. As I mentioned, two versions of this cadenza were written, one fancifully racing through twisted versions of the main theme and the other finding its way to a thunderous restatement of the theme with as much energy as one can muster. The moment that I wish to identify, the version which I prefer, is the second, more powerful one, despite the preferences of the composer and many of the greatest pianists (Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Argerich). In fact, the odds are that if you purchase a recording, you will get the original, “faster”, and arguably more technically challenging version. There are, though, a few recordings including the other one, two of which that I can recommend are: Leif Ove Andsnes and Dmitris Sgouros (which he recorded when he was 14!). Recording notes follow this article.

So why do I prefer this second version to the first? Simply put, it’s the grandeur of it all. Starting off very dark and mysterious, the piano builds slowly into “waves” crashing upwards and downwards before it’s final descent culminating in two “A” octaves punctuating the opening section. And there we have a pause – a split second for a breath, setting up the massive chords to follow. I’ve always felt that this bigger, chorded cadenza, was more “Rachmaninoff-ian”, if there is such a thing, further demonstrating his Tchaikovsky influence and that “Russian Romantic” style – beauty combined with majesty and power.

All arguments aside, whether you prefer one cadenza to another, I maintain that the moments just before, the pause, and the chords themselves, are just another example of that magical moment in music.

Let’s move away from piano concertos but keep our focus on the recapitulation once again featuring a full orchestra. Gustav Holst wrote his “The Planets” suite to capture his views of the different planets (well, 7 of them at least), representing the gods that provided them their names as well as a gut feeling of what these planets must be like to behold. The piece is not assembled in the same order as the planets from the sun, and, instead of beginning with Mercury, Holst chooses to start with Mars, which he titles “Mars, the Bringer of War.” By the title alone, we know we’re in for an explosive 7:30, capturing the feeling of both war and the pain and desolation caused by it, much like the planet Mars itself might be.

The piece begins slowly, introducing the main 8-beat rhythmic pattern in 5/4 time with the snare drums and strings. The orchestra picks up the theme on top of that and we’re off to the races. Just over a minute into the piece, the orchestra swells and restates the theme with the brass section carrying the bulk of the load with the themes and rhythms. The piece moves into the second theme, a march with the horns and the strings playing a question and answer session with each other. All of a sudden, the piece dies down to nothing, and the cellos and snare drum take over, slowly adding other instruments to the mix. Wave after wave, the ocean swells until the final climax – another of those “brief pauses” before the brass and the entire orchestra join in together to crash down in unison over the repeated 8-beat pattern again before the theme returns. It truly is one of the great climaxes in all of western classical music. [HOLST EXCERPT]

At the risk of running really long, I realize that I’ll have to write a follow up article to include some of the many other moments that I wanted to highlight. However, I’ll stick with one more to conclude this article. For this, I’m going to select a moment which is of the “non-recapitulation” variety. Well, sort of. The second symphony by Sibelius is one of my favorite works. Most notably, the 4th movement contains so many thrills that I’m always left feeling exhausted by the end. The movement centers around a 6 note thematic pattern, D-E-F#, C#-D-E. The movement is structured in a fairly close to sonata mold – theme 1, theme 2, theme 3, development, recapitulation, theme 2, theme 3, coda. The moment which I will highlight occurs coming out of the third theme and beginning the development. This third theme is an arabesque hypnotic one, with woodwinds playing the theme over the bass strings pulsating up and down a scale. As the orchestra emerges out of this section, the strings begin an upward ascent to the upper registers. When they reach the zenith, a solo flute repeats the 6 note pattern and is quickly doubled. These 6 notes, and these 6 notes alone, floating through the string clouds, are as angels – assuring the listener that they are safe before they begin the torturous descent back to what eventually becomes the main recapitulation. Not much more to say without simply taking a listen. [SIBELIUS EXCERPT]

So there we have it. The first installment of amazing “moments” in classical music. I promise there are more on the way, including works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Verdi, Grieg, and even more by our friend Beethoven. As always, I welcome feedback and thanks for reading. Enjoy the moment!

Recommended recordings:
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Herbert Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophone)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major. Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic (London)
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. Leif Ove Andsnes, Berglund, Oslo Philharmonic (EMI Classics)
Holst – The Planets. James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophone)
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor)