On Beauty, Biber, and Berio

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Last month we talked about Beethoven and ran out of space. Here’s the tail end of it (at the tail end of this column) and some new tails to chase.

Too Beautiful

How can that be? Here’s how. Last month I listened to several albums devoted entirely to the music of Reynaldo Hahn (1874–1947), a contemporary of Maurice Ravel and an intimate of Marcel Proust. Hahn’s music led me not toward Ravel or Proust but to another historical figure, Edmund Burke (1729–1797). An Anglo-Irish statesman, Burke supported the American colonies’ bid for independence, found the French Revolution unforgivably violent and chaotic, and eventually became known as the father of English conservatism. He wrote exactly one book about art, A Philosophical Enquiry into . . . the Sublime and Beautiful. In it, he suggested that works of art informed by ideas of the Beautiful are well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas those informed by the Sublime have the power to compel and destroy. To oversimplify his argument, one could say that we create things of Beauty out of love, and those things calm us. On the other hand we create objects of Sublimity out of fear—especially the fear of death—because those objects represent for us the vastness and insuperable power of the universe. Instead of calm, they offer tension.

BBB2_BeatriceWhy would anyone choose the sublime over the beautiful? Because it’s there—we recognize its presence in human life and in the wider world. A work of art that expresses sublimity gives us a chance to deal with chaos, with Fate, in manageable form. Music like the Mozart Requiem, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration reminds of the implacable strength of our enemies, including mortality, the ultimate foe. And yet: Beethoven’s hero struggles and finally triumphs. Mozart’s Requiem comforts mourners and promises salvation to the faithful. Strauss’s tone poem suggests that the moment of death is also a moment of transcendence and release—a surprising conclusion, considering that Strauss, a worldly sensualist, had embraced Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy in his youth.

The Sublime held most Romantics firmly in its grip and continues to exert enormous influence on music and art today. Here in the 21st century audiences can be found that revere not only Beethoven and Brahms but also Rachmaninoff (too beautiful, but touched by the sublime), Ives (too sublime, but touched by beauty) and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (you decide). We love Mt. Everest and the Matterhorn, likewise ivy-covered medieval ruins, likewise the glorious sunsets of Big Sky Country. We love when something is so huge, so strangely wrought, so beyond our puny human scale that it bowls us over.

But there’s also an art of the small, the exquisitely finished, the domestic, the familiar. In daily life we often prize what we can more readily grasp. Hahn offers such rewards. He came of age as a musician just before Modernism made its first inroads via Debussy and Stravinsky. There is not one truly modern note in anything he wrote. Listen to this, a Lesquercade (i.e., pavane) from Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este:

Hahn: Le Bal De Béatrice d’Este: II. Lesquercade

Even when Hahn gets lively you can sense a certain reserve, an Apollonian instinct for control and balance, as in the Ibérienne from the same suite:

Hahn: Le Bal De Béatrice d’Este: IV. Ibérienne

This lovely suite for winds, two harps, piano, and percussion epitomizes Hahn’s deeply conservative aesthetic. He revered the past, finding within it a grace and stability sadly missing in early-20th-century life. In Le Bal he sought to evoke the sparkling artistic and intellectual life of the late-15th-century Sforza court in Milan, where the young Béatrice welcomed luminaries of the age like Leonardo da Vinci. It is joined by other works for ensemble winds on a very pleasant new recording from Nicolas Chalvin, Ensemble Initium, and the Orchestre des Pays de Savoie (Timpani 1C1231). I would not want to be without it.

I should also mention a more conventional collection of Hahn’s big orchestral works—this was suggested to me by the fellow who curates the constantly growing assortment of goodies at COL HD*LL. It’s a gem: Hahn’s concertos for violin and piano plus his Suite Hongroise (Maguelone Music MAG111.106). Here are all three movements of the Violin Concerto—listen to as much as you like. See if, after two minutes of this, you still possess the will power to hit the “pause” button:

Sooner or later you’ll get around to Hahn’s songs, essential to 20th-century French vocal repertoire. Here he joined his gift for melody to a comparably fastidious taste in poetry. My touchstone in this genre has long been American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham’s wonderful collection La Belle Époque: The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn (Sony Classical SK 60168). She and accompanist-coach Roger Vignoles become our trusted guides to the melancholy delights at the heart of this music. Let’s hear a little of Le Rossignol des lilas:

Hahn: Le Rossignol Des Lilas

BBB2_Graham  BBB2_EidiOh, you, the first nightingale to come
To the lilac bush beneath my window,
How sweet it is to hear your voice again!
No other voice can compare to yours!

Be true to the bonds that lovers make,
Trill once more, divine little being!
Oh, you, the first nightingale . . .

At night or in the morning, how
Your hymn of love pierces through me!
Such ardor rekindles in me
The memory of so many Aprils gone by. . . .

We might expect Hahn’s solo piano music to share the emotionally accessible character of his songs. That is not always the case. The brevity and reserve of many pieces in his sprawling 1915 collection Le Rossignol éperdu (= lost, bewildered) often create a sense of distance. They can seem beautiful but opaque. A new set from Billy Eidi (Timpani 2C2229) is well recorded and succeeds partly, I think, because it doesn’t overplay any of the delicate, fleeting sentiments in the music. Here’s a bit of Les Noces de duc du Joyeuse, an exercise in Renaissance nostalgia from Carnet de voyage, one of the four suites that make up Le Rossignol éperdu:

Le Rossignol Éperdu – Carnet De Voyage/5. Les Noces Du Duc De Joyeuse

(For those who think a bit of overplaying might be a good thing, there’s also a complete recording made several years ago by Earl Wild, 87 at the time but still young at heart.)

Bibermania

Relax. We’re talking about Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704), part of the good news for fans of Baroque music ready to get beyond Bach or Vivaldi. Wonderful things await you, just the other side of Telemann!

BBB2_TintomaraBy the way, have you noticed how much Baroque music is out there these days? For example, the first three tracks in Tintomara, a superb Channel Classics album from trumpeter Wim van Hasselt and trombonist Jörgen van Rijen (SA 36315). Listen to their suave interpretation of Henry Purcell’s theatrical song “My dearest, my fairest”:

My dearest, my fairest

Later on in the album (it is an album, by the way, a well-paced recital that can be enjoyed in one or two gulps, unlike the collections reviewed above) Hasselt and Rijen offer a surprisingly sensitive treatment of the Passacaille from Ravel’s Piano Trio. That’s a Baroque form, the passacaglia, well known to Purcell and Bach, recycled in the 20th century by (among others) that crafty old master Ravel. Et in secula seculorum.

But let’s get back to Biber. Born in Bohemia, he garnered increasing fame from 1670 on at the court of Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph in Salzburg. Considered the greatest violinist of his day, Biber composed music both vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular, in all genres. If Hahn seems to have focused on the Beautiful, you could say Biber specialized in the Sublime—meaning he was celebrated for ensemble music in the tradition of the Colossal Baroque and for solo music in the stylus fantasticus. In other words, he reliably delivered Big or Over-the-Top, often in the same package.

BBB2_PodgerNot that his music lacks nuance or beauty. His most celebrated compilation for solo violin, the Mystery or Rosary Sonatas, positively glows with both. Listen:

Biber – The Agony In The Garden C Minor

Would it help if I told you these sonatas emulate devotions from the Catholic Rosary on Mysteries from the lives of Jesus and Mary? That the clip above is from a sonata entitled “The Agony in the Garden”? That most of the sonatas employ re-tunings (known as scordatura) enabling players to produce sounds otherwise unavailable, although they make the playing itself considerably more difficult? Nah, I didn’t think so. In the hands of a gifted violinist, here the redoubtable Rachel Podger, all that becomes secondary to the marvelously volatile music itself.

Elsewhere in these sonatas Biber’s eccentric meanderings create perfect means for expressing the sublimity of the Mysteries. Through scordatura, he forces the performers into a world of miracles and apparitions, where things are seldom what they seem. Here is part of a sonata addressing “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin”:

Biber – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin d major

Now that is stylus fantasticus, folks. It should sound like a spontaneous improvisation, even though aside from a few ornaments, every note is written down.

BBB2_SavallWe now pass from intimate expression to the more grandiose. With the Colossal Baroque, more was definitely better: spectacular groupings of voices and instruments could generate maximum contrast and volume, an overwhelming sonic impression. Biber’s massive Missa Salisburgensis in 53 (!) parts seems to have been written for celebrations at the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Salzburg’s archbishopric. This huge occasion began on October 15 of 1682 and continued for eight more days. An eyewitness wrote:

How many choirs do you suppose there were? I can assure you that there were twelve to be seen distributed all round the walls on the [marble] balconies, which are known as oratories. There was a profusion of lutes, lyres, trumpets, horns, flutes, zithers and all kinds of other musical instruments. Then we come to the TE DEUM LAUDAMUS. Oh God, oh celestial beings! Instruments sound and voices sing in praise. No one in the temple can fail to hear it. All those present are overwhelmed, and it is as if they were in heaven. . . .

It may seem churlish to offer a footnote here, but I must point out that Biber’s score for the Mass calls for a mere five choirs plus two choirs of “trumpeters” (“2 Loci”).

Missa Salisburgensis, à 53 (1682): I. Kyrie

This is from a splendid new recording by Jordi Savall and his various ensembles (Biber: Baroque Splendor. Missa Salisburgensis, Alia Vox AVSA9912). The music includes a welcome number of more intimate passages:

Missa Salisburgensis, à 53 (1682): II. Gloria

Obviously the intimacy is sometimes short-lived. Savall fills out this SACD with a motet à 53, Plaudite Tympana, the 1673 Battalia à 10—an instrumental “battle” suite of a type then fashionable—and the Sonata Sancti Polycarpi à 9, for two wind choirs and continuo, written to honor Count Polykarp von Kuenburg, bishop of Salzburg (1673) and later Gurk (1674). Yes, I realize you didn’t need to know that. I just enjoy typing “Polykarp.”

BBB2_LetzborFrom Gunar Letzbor and Ars Antiqua Austria comes our final Biber bite: the Sonatae Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes (“sonatas for all purposes”; Challenge Classics SACD CC72676). There are other, smoother renditions of this music out there. But I think the rough enthusiasm of Letzbor’s group provides just the right sound for Biber. Like his solo sonatas and like the big vocal works, these ensemble sonatas are compiled of brief sections that follow one another without a real pause. You can pack lots of contrasting material into a fairly small space that way. Here’s the cheerful Sonata VI a cinque to play us offstage:

Sonata VI a cinque

Before we leave Biber and the Baroque, may I shift the topic? Over the past decade, Rachel Podger has become an audiophile poster child for the Baroque. You’ll notice she is featured once again in this very space. And why not? Podger is a meticulous, often sensitive performer who deserves to be heard. She’s found a home at Channel Classics that gives her an added advantage: sumptuously recorded sound in historically appropriate venues. But folks! Other fine Baroque artists out there have been playing their hearts out for us. They deserve more attention. What follows are my two pfennigs’ worth.

BBB2_Moderno  BBB2_FantasticusQuicksilver is a New York-based group co-led by violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski. Around the time that Podger’s Perla Barocca came out, I heard Quicksilver in concert performing similar repertoire, i.e., 17th-century Italian sonatas by Castello, Fontana, Merula, and others. In their collective hands, the music leapt off the page, out of dusty manuscripts and into alternately delicate and heart-pounding life:

Sonata decima

I quickly got hold of their two most recent recordings, Stile Moderno (Acis APL72546) and Fantasticus (Acis APL94710), the first offering Castello, Fontana, et al., the second devoted to Biber predecessors and contemporaries like Antonio Bertali, who worked in Vienna most of his life. Their albums offer almost the same heady, daredevil perspective I heard in Quicksilver’s live performances. Too bad they don’t have Jared Sacks around. Instead of recording in reverberant European chapels, these magnificent New Yorkers bottle their Baroque lightning at a college performing arts center in New Jersey. It’s a good modern hall, but it ain’t the Doopsgezinde Kerk. You should nevertheless get their discs, particularly if (as some people like to say) it’s all about the music. And watch for a Quicksilver appearance in your city.

BBB2_Apotheoses  BBB2_TeatroIf you like Podger’s Vivaldi but can’t help wondering how it’d taste with more pepper sauce, give Amandine Beyer a listen. Beyer leads Gli incogniti, a group with “a taste for the unknown in all its forms,” whether that’s unexplored repertoire or re-examinations of the familiar. Their two most recent Harmonia Mundi recordings demonstrate this breadth of taste. Couperin: Apothéoses focuses on François Couperin’s oft-stated goal of reconciling the French and Italian tastes (goûts) in music: in the title work he imagines Lully and Corelli in godlike dialogue, achieving “la perfection de la Musique” via “La Paix de Parnasse.”

Vivaldi: Teatro alla moda explores the influence of theatre—especially the spectacular, gimmick-ridden, silly world of Baroque opera satirized in Benedetto Marcello’s hilarious Teatro alla moda—on Vivaldi’s instrumental music. Aided by musicologist Olivier Fourés (who also plays in the group), Beyer and Gli incogniti deliver supercharged, funny, touching performances of several concertos plus actual music from Vivaldi’s operas. Since Vivaldi would occasionally leap up and play a concerto at the opera himself, the whole mélange sizzles with synergy. Listen:

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto Per Violino In D Major, RV 228: III. Allegro

At the end of that movement, Beyer appends a fantasia from another concerto, improvising and reworking as Vivaldi himself did many times:

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto Per Violino In D Major, RV 228: III. Allegro

Here’s another such reworking, a version of a concerto Andante in which Vivaldi wrote out a set of “improvisations” on a bass line for his pupil Chiareta:

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto Per Violino In B Flat Major, RV 372a: I. Andante

This is the kind of creative re-imagination of old music that allows it to live again most fully.

BBB2_PineFor yet another refreshing take, try Rachel Barton Pines’ Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d’Amore Concertos (Cedilla 90000 159). The viola d’amore in question is a 1774 Nicola Gagliano 12-string that Pine acquired in 2010; its top is made from “the very same tree” as Pine’s 1770 Gagliano violin. What does a viola d’amore sound like? Leopold Mozart wrote that it was “especially beautiful in the stillness of the night.” Listen to the unusual instrumentation of this concerto, which teams the viola d’amore with solo winds from Ars Antigua, who accompany Pine throughout:

II. Largo

I did begin this section by challenging readers to get beyond Vivaldi. But the pyrotechnics of Gli incogniti and RBP’s gorgeous sound totally justify lighting two more candles for the Red Priest.

Berio Plays Beethoven (and Boccherini)

Ludwig Van—and many others—pop up in a new high-res recording of Luciano Berio’s classic ‘60s work Sinfonia. The recording comes to us from Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio SO (Ondine ODE 1227-5), and it includes two other important Berio works, Calmo (1974/89; not very calm) and Ritirata Notturna di Madrid (1975; based on Boccherini and full of Baroque fun–see below).

BBB2_Berio_Old  BBB2_Berio_NewSinfonia dates from 1968–69, not a good period in American life. It was commissioned by the New York PO, which gave its first performances, the composer conducting and the Swingle Singers providing important spoken words and vocal sounds. At long last, a recording of the original four-movement version has been reissued. After the first performances Berio revised the work, adding a culminating fifth movement and changing other details. It has gotten a lot of recordings and performances since 1969.

One movement is a slow, stark meditation on the phonemes that make up the name Martin Luther King. It’s hard not to be moved—horrified—by the violence and sadness it evokes. Another movement consists of large swatches of the scherzo from Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, for which Mahler used a Wunderhorn song about St. Anthony preaching to the fish on Sunday morning. Berio was preaching too—about 1968, using an old, old song about the utter hopelessness of life’s most important endeavors. Against that backdrop the composer spread great clouds of words, primarily from a short novel by Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable:

I must not forget this, I have not forgotten it. But I must have said this before, since I say it now. . . . well well, so there is an audience, it’s a public show, you buy your seat and you wait, perhaps it’s free, a free show, you take your seat and you wait for it to begin, or perhaps it’s compulsory, a compulsory show . . . .

Familiar bits from Rosenkavalier, from Beethoven’s Sixth and Ninth Symphonies and much more, surface here and there. It gets messy. One of the strengths of the original NYPO recording was that you could hear nearly every word of the spoken text. Berio later said this wasn’t necessary or even desirable, but maybe he was just ashamed of having created so effective a melodrama. On Lintu’s new recording you can’t hear every word, which may be why they reproduce the entire text in the CD booklet. Much of what you can hear is obviously spoken phonetically by Finns who don’t understand a word of it. On the other hand, the orchestral sound is ravishing—bigger, more colorful, with a far greater dynamic range than earlier recordings usually captured. It certainly gives a better idea of the (revised?) orchestration than does the premiere recording.

So why do I keep returning to that first record? The text, of course, and the fact that the NYPO had a gut feeling for this score. They were living it. At least that’s what it felt like.

For me, though, what may be going on (“Call that going? Call that on?”) is a phenomenon to be addressed in some future column: imprinting. First love = greatest love. Nothing can take its place. In 1969 and ’70, I was living Sinfonia too. I can’t be objective about that old NYPO record, any more than I can hear flaws in the Beethoven Sixth (Paray, Detroit Symphony, Mercury Living Presence MG 50045) I picked up at Gambles Hardware in Gering, Nebraska, in 1961. First love and all that.

Coming in November: Gift Suggestions.

For December: The Basics—Brahms Chamber Music