Too Much Tchaikovsky

The Shock of the Old

Issue 12

What’s Old? In classical music, everything and nothing. Steve Reich is 80. Bach is dead; so are Cage and Satie, Ives and Varèse, Morton (Feldman) and Milton (Babbitt). So what? Their music still unsettles folks raised on Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Given the right energies in the right hands, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák can unsettle us too—see below.

Solitary Pursuits

William Lawes (1602–1645), gentleman, soldier, and musician, served at the court of Charles I. Rushing passionately if unwisely to the siege of Chester during the English Civil War, he met an untimely end. Robert Herrick lamented his passing in verse; you can read it here. (Lawes and Herrick had collaborated on “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”) Respected in his own time, Lawes could never have predicted how brightly his flame would burn long after his death.

When we consider Lawes’ music for lyra viol, an instrument upon which he excelled, a scene forms in the mind: at leisure in his quarters, a man paces restlessly. He fingers a nearby viol for a moment and, on a whim, decides to sit and play. Opening Lawes’ new collection, he tunes the viol, begins to work bow on strings. Tentatively, then with increasing engagement, our gentleman coaxes music into his chamber. Finally a familiar and welcome transformation occurs: what began as idle play has become recreation in every sense. He is no longer restless, no longer alone.

William Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol. Richard Boothby, viol. (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907625). Warmly recommended.

But perhaps you find that corner of Lawes’ output too ascetic to serve as a proper introduction to his music. May I suggest—even more warmly—Phantasm’s excellent Lawes: The Royal Consort (Linn CKD 470)? This well-recorded, well-played set of ensemble works offers contrapuntal and timbral richness at which the solo viol music can only hint. Phantasm’s whole Lawes series has drawn high praise across the board; I am slightly embarrassed to find myself joining them so late in the day. Listen:

It’s still early days for Rachel Barton Pine’s new recording of the Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by J. S. Bach (Testament, Avie AV 2360). But why not rush passionately to get these satisfying performances? Pine combines effortless technique with such profound musicality that each movement flows like epic discourse, something from Homer or Plato. No way to summarize the riches on display with a clip or two, so instead we’ll offer a YouTube moment from the 2014 Ravinia Festival:

Not Quite Solitary

If you can imagine Lawes’ solo viol works as a journey inward—a meditation on solitude—you can think of Bach’s solo violin music as outward-facing, a Lonely Planet Guide to the cosmos. The keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), on the other hand, fill a more conventional social niche. Scarlatti wrote them for his pupil and patron Maria Barbara, who became Queen of Spain. Court life proved tedious to this intelligent, talented woman, so as a respite she asked her old mentor to supply keyboard sonatas, lots of them.

Scarlatti astonished not only the Queen but also himself with his creative efforts, ultimately amounting to well over 500 works. They teem with the sounds of Spain’s streets and countryside, presenting prodigious technical demands as well—apparently Maria Barbara was as fine a harpsichordist as her teacher. Again a scene forms easily in the mind: the two sitting at a pair of the Queen’s many instruments, delighting each other with improvised variations, “ingenious Jesting with Art,” in Scarlatti’s words.

Yevgeny Sudbin’s nourishing sampler, Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas (BIS-2138) illustrates the full range of Scarlatti’s “topics” while showcasing Sudbin’s formidable skill. Listen:

And how about this?

If you like that, check out Sudbin’s Vol. 1 next.

Community Efforts

Okay, let’s play some standards! First up: a richly realized live performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, coupled with an even juicier Serenade by his son-in-law Joseph Suk, from Mariss Jansons and the great Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BR Klassik 900145; CD or download). This outing shows both conductor and ensemble at peak strength. The orchestra’s depth of talent is especially apparent in divisi string passages and vibrant woodwind playing. Jansons’ performance convincingly balances the Eighth’s vivacious moments with more ruminative murmurings. The Adagio, modeled after the funeral march of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, is followed by a wistful, Brahmsian dance movement. The finale begins with similar melancholy but rouses itself by degrees:

Suk’s Serenade, lighter in spirit, is delivered with great affection.

You will find yourself returning again and again to these wonderful performances. There’s something ineffably Czech about their mix of light and shade, fervor and sadness.

Brief comments now about two other albums. First, AQ’s raves in TAS for Steven Isserlis’s Elgar & Walton Cello Concertos (Hyperion CDA68077) are fully justified. I’ve been playing his Elgar alongside the classic Du Pré/Barbirolli recording, and it does not suffer by comparison. You will enjoy this more nuanced, lyrical approach.

César Franck (1822–1890) did not complete his Piano Quintet until he was 57. But what a tempest it depicts! Franck was apparently moved to create this passionate work by his relationship with Augusta Holmès, spirited French-Irish composer who studied with him privately and attended all his classes. Rimsky-Korsakov described Holmès as “very décolletée”; Saint-Saëns had proposed marriage to her (she turned him down). Madame Franck hated the piece and reportedly hated her husband’s pupils for driving him to write it. Saint-Saëns, pianist at the first performance, was so enraged by the music’s wildness that he stalked off stage immediately afterwards.

A new recording by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA68061) brings out all the passion but also underlines Franck’s suavity and formal control. From the outset, the music aims for maximum contrast:

Things heat up, then heat up further. Recommended!

Lawrence Schenbeck was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee. In spite of that, he became a historical musicologist. He is the author of two books, many more scholarly articles, and countless liner notes, music reviews, and “casuals.” He lives in the Atlanta area with his family and too much music, Tchaikovsky being the least of it. Literally.

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