Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Thursday, 17 February 2011

No laughs here, I fear

Works Well has been getting flabby (Useful adj, Lucy), playing to the gallery, looking for cheap laughs. Time for custard-pie risk.

Here’s musical counterpoint defined: Simultaneously sounding two or more parts or melodies. Sounds easy. Who’s big in counterpoint? J. S. Bach, it figures in most of his stuff. And what’s one of his many pinnacles? How about the chaconne, the fifth part of his second partita for unaccompanied violin. Don’t take my word, here’s Brahms:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Spotted the contradiction? “On one stave.” Two (or more) melodies on one instrument! Fine on the two-handed piano, but a violin?

For music I turn to Prague. I ask Julia: Does this mean that the line is broken into alternating fragments from each voice and that the listener “carries over” the alternating gaps in his own mind?

Julia responds: Great question! (You see why I email Julia.) Bach is able to sneak in lots of voices through both chords played double stop (across two strings) and then by using arpeggios, etc, to create an implied counterpoint.

And Larry Solomon on the chaconne, adds: ...what looks at times like a simple scale often divides into motivic counterpoint between two voices.

As I write Itzhak Perlman scrapes. Julia suggests “the violin sonatas (may be) more for the performer than for a listener.” Hmm. The jewel case sticker says I spent £23.99 for Itzhak’s two CDs. When I was very poor.

11 comments:

Julia said...

To paraphrase Larry Solomon - anyone playing that piece should hear those voices and pull them out of the music. Listen to Hilary Hahn play the chaconne, she starts out with one voice and then starts a two part conversation that then grows into something much more complicated. She separates the voices with deliberate differences in bowing and dynamics too.

But enough nerdiness from me! Who is your favorite violinist and do you like one performer for Bach and another for the great 19th c concertos or do you have one that fits all categories?

Rouchswalwe said...

Kyung Wha Chung is one of my favorites, although my lack of music vocabulary prevents me from explaining why exactly. I think she plays without flabbiness.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: In simplistic terms I imagined it went something like this: Old King Cole - Jack and Jill - was a merry old soul - went up the hill. Thus the alternating parts would be of different tunes but also played in contrasting ways so that after a while the listener became aware of two separate voices meshing. Clearly it is far more complicated than that and, as far as I can make out, the single line is written such that it can be taken as a tune in its own right but containing elements which - with time - emerge as different tunes. In fact Solomon says six voices can be detected in the chaconne.

Favourite violinist. Wow1 I'm glad you weren't asking about pianists where I've got favourites for individual works, let alone composers (eg, Solomon - not Larry of that ilk - doing LvB, op 109). I have a soft spot for David Oistrakh who was the first to reveal the Sibelius concerto as a masterpiece to me. Big romantic sound. I have to say Itzhak is pretty good (esp. Bach) and comes off better than Nathan Milstein , with whom he often seemed to be twinned and whom I heard at the Jewish Y in Pittsburgh where he was just a mite too slick. However, talking about more modern names I sought a replacement for our LvB cto (now ditched; can't remember the name) and the BBC3 Building a Library series recommended Thomas Zehetmair. Persuasive power. As to so-called period violinists I was fantastically impressed last night by either Cecilia Bernardini or Sarah Moffatt (the programme doesn't distinguish who was the leader) with the New London Consort doing Purcell's The Fairy Queen in an excellent updated version (reviewed on Tuesday Feb 15in The Guardian) which I intend to blog about some time.

RW (zS): Itzhak's a virtuoso anyway but I must confess I took to him following a documentary about an all-star version of The Trout where he was seen playing with his kids in the garden and "speaking" to them via the violin.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: For Nathan Milstein read Pinchas Zukerman.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: ... although it wss Milstein I heard at the JY. Oh dear...

Anne said...

I know very little about music -- just know, as they say, what I like. But I learned something from this post, and for that I am grateful.

I first read it last night, and thought, oh now, too complicated for my feeble brain. This morning it seems perfectly clear. Especially good is BB's comment in response to Julia.

Barrett Bonden said...

Anne: You'll notice the custard-pie risk reference in the first para. This is a coded way of saying it was time I took on a post for which I am unqualified.

I know next to nothing about music which puts me in the huge majority. But wherever possible I like to write about what little I know in a way that is intelligible to those similarlly afflicted. But blogs have a way of biting back. Having climbed laboriously over the counterpoint hurdle I completely messed up the distinctions between Perlman, Zukerman and Millstein. I shall seek to disguise this error in the next post with a destructive piece about the West Riding or my belly-button, both subjects I have mastered.

Julia said...

R- I'll have to try Kyung Wha Chung, I've never heard her play.

BB- Oistrakh is one of my favorites too. I spent a year in university listening to all the recordings our music library had of his performances. His broad sound is more appealing to me than Heifetz, or even the more modern performers. I also like Itzhak Perlman quite a bit. Milstein's Bach recordings are pretty great for pedagogy - I listened to his recordings for all my bowings when I was a kid, but he didn't thrill me the way Oistrakh does, it is true.

Hattie said...

The Bach solo violin pieces were played with the Baroque curved bow, which allowed variable tension. Players could play chords without strain. I have the 1952 Rolph Schroeder recording done with the curved bow, under the supervision of Albert Schweizer. Maybe I should dust it off and listen to it again. I played it so many times it probably isn't worth much.
The recordings I hear with the modern bow sound hideous to me.
We have an overabundance these days of show-offey violinists, if you ask me.

Barrett Bonden said...

Julia: Be warned, these exchanges could go on and on. I assume you've read G. B. Shaw's music criticism. Here's a letter he sent to Heifetz in 1920:

"Your recital has filled my wife and I with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly."

Of course this was at a time when string players still thought it was OK to get from Note A to Note B via good old portamento.

Hattie: I always thought it was the nature of the strings (ie, cat-gut vs. whatever) that gave period playing its characteristic tone. Alas, you may not like modern violin playing but you must be grateful for modern recording techniques. Without them period-strung violins generate far less sound.

Rouchswalwe said...

Julia, Kyung Wha Chung is probably best known for her Vivaldi. Her Tchaikovsky violin concerto (with Charles Dutoit) from the early 80's is available on Decca and thrills me over and over.