Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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A new review from Robert Matthew-Walker at Classical Source. Read the whole thing here

A short sample follows

with regard to Sawyers’s compositions: they speak naturally, seriously, but by no means doggedly; his music is emotionally direct and always involving the intelligent listener. This is the kind of music for which many people have been secretly hoping for years. The First Symphony (commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 75th-anniversary) is a superb work, in four movements, wonderfully orchestrated, sensitive, powerful and memorable. We’ll come to the Second Symphony in a moment, but on this current disc I began with the Concertante (2006), the shortest work here at eleven minutes and calling for the fewest number of players. It is a magnificent composition, in the line of a single-movement three-sectioned combination of emotional power and relaxation, drama and contemplation, superbly expressed within an underlying and unifying pulse. The music is immediately intriguing and concerned entirely with development. The preparation for the central slower section is wonderfully achieved, growing quietly (and wholly organically) from the previous concluding bars, it builds to a genuine and powerful climax before morphing into the faster third section – a true ‘coming together’ of the material.

Not the least important aspect of this release is the excellent booklet note by Kenneth Woods, who writes apropos of this work: “[it is]a wonderful example of a work written somewhat ‘to order’ which still manages to encapsulate all that is so compelling and rewarding about his music … I love the way in which a work that could have ended up ‘modest’ in all the wrong ways packs such a powerful emotional punch.” Having been deeply impressed with Sawyers’s First Symphony, I ought not to have been surprised by the sheer fearlessness and directness of expression of the Second (2008), the work of a musician who is communicative, intelligent and unfailingly musical at all times within a very wide expressive range. There are no miscalculations in this work: it is a genuine Symphony, such as Sibelius, Nielsen, Schoenberg and Shostakovich would instantly have recognised, and in no sense is it ‘old-fashioned’ – the concept of ‘fashion’ in music is as unacceptable to Sawyers as it was to those earlier masters. Power, strength and expressive range are here a-plenty, and the continuous flow of the music is gripping, travelling this way and that, but at all times utterly well-paced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that it is written for exactly the same-sized orchestra that Beethoven calls for in his Seventh Symphony, eminently playable, lying under the fingers and totally rewarding.

Sawyers’s Cello Concerto (2010) was written for Maja Bogdanovic, and is also eminently serious and immensely impressive. From the first bars, the listener’s attention is gripped as one follows the argument, growing from the beautiful initial theme; the second movement is further proof of this composer’s quality – it is contemplative, but possessing a genuine sense of inner momentum: this is not one idea following another, but revealing a flow such as one finds in the slow movements of Brahms’s larger structures. It leads to a central faster section full of “anger and tension” (as Woods well says) but handled with complete assurance as the music returns to the mood of the opening, subsumed and at peace. The somewhat unpredictable finale sheds fresh light on this composer’s outlook: “I’ve come to absolutely love it”, says Woods – and one hopes that many more will share the experience.

The performances are totally committed and the recording quality is really fine. This is the kind of music that gives one hope for the future of our art.

2 months ago | |
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We’ve been hearing for a few years about the death of blogs.

Certainly, blogs are not dead. When I started Vftp I could find no other active conductor blogs- none.  A number of wise heads warned me that conductors should keep quiet- the more you go on record with your beliefs, the more people will disagree with you and the more jobs you’ll be locked out of.  Now there are hundreds of conductor blogs, although many performers never get much beyond their “Hi and welcome to my blog- I’m really looking to sharing all sorts of stories and insights from my fascinating life as a jetsetting conductor here! Please come back soon to join me on my musical journey!” post.

But, I can’t help but notice that many of the best and most influential blogs that have been around for a while have gone a bit quiet. Gavin Plumley shut down his wonderful Entartete Musik blog recently, and even Pliable threatened to pull the plug on his indispensable “Overgrown Path” earlier this year.

Vftp is certainly less prolific than in past years- I’ve got a lot more on my plate these days, and I’ve also said a lot of things I wanted to say, but I still find the blog is a really empowering outlet, and I still feel that having a place to articulate ideas and views close to my heart is very healthy for me.  Many of the posts closest to my heart have been largely ignored, while some of the silliest ones have found worryingly huge audiences, but every once in a while, a serious minded post about orchestral auditions, superficiality in the conducting profession or the weird and wacky Gothic Symphony becomes really popular and I realize the blog can still be an effective tool.

Bloggers may come and go, but at a fundamental level, the way in which blogs work has changed, and I find the changes deeply troubling.

In the early years of Vftp, my readership grew (from zero!) pretty rapidly, and readers fell into one of three categories. There were readers who just checked out the blog pretty regularly because they liked it or knew me- they might even have bookmarked my site, there were blog-readers and bloggers who hopped from blog to blog via people’s blogrolls or aggregators like Blognoggle, and finally there were readers who subscribed to the blog’s  RSS feed via Google Reader

Over the weekend, I had a quick look at my referral stats and saw that one reader, one, had come from Blognoggle that day. That site used to be responsible for a huge amount of Vftp traffic. Folks interested in classical music would go to Blognoggle, see what was new at the various popular blogs and hop on over to Vftp or Overgrown Path. No more, but fair is fair- I can’t remember the last time that I used the site. I’d sort of assumed they were out of business until I saw that referral.

Likewise, blogrolls are much less influential. I’ve had mine down for a while because hardly anyone used it and most of the blogs it linked to were inactive. I keep meaning to find time to give it a good edit and re-launch. Blogroll referrals to Vftp have dropped incredibly.

And then there is Google Reader, (and other RSS subscription platforms)- RIP. There are plenty of other newsreaders out there that do the same job Google Reader did…. It’s just that nobody seems to use them. Subscriptions were a great thing for a blogger. At it’s peak, I knew that anything and everything I published here would get read (or at least downloaded) by a nice solid number of readers. There was a time when one could import your entire blog to Facebook by linking your RSS feed to their “Notes” feature. When I started doing this it got a lot of my FB friends who weren’t previously reading Vftp (and they called themselves friends!) to read pretty much everything I wrote automatically. However, the long-term ramifications for Vftp were not good- pre-existing readers took to just reading everything of mine when it popped up on FB. They stopped visiting the actual site, and when FB discontinued the service, I noticed that a number of readers never quite got back in the habit of visiting Vftp every day as they had a few years earlier. Those bookmarks got deleted. Instead, they just spent more time on Facebook.

So, aggregators are forgotten, blogrolls ignored and RSS newsreaders have been shut down. What is left?

Social media, of course.

Blogging these days is NOTHING without Facebook and Twitter. Nothing. Five years ago, if I put up a post and did nothing, within 12 hours I would have attracted a decent number of readers between Vftp fans, referring sites and subscriptions. Now, if I don’t tweet and FB a new post, I might as well have not published it. I can’t speak for other bloggers, but these days, blog readership is nearly completely dependent on social media.

The good news about this is that Facebook (more so than Twitter for some reason) is a relatively powerful tool for creating virality. Since the paradigm started to change, I have had a handful of posts become insanely popular in a way nothing did in the early days.

On the other hand, It worries me that this shift of power is, really, all about power. Blogging used to be primarily fed by a decentralized system of mutual support among individual bloggers (even a site like Blognoggle was basically a blog) and readers. Blogging platforms gave individuals not only the power to publish to a world-wide audience (a truly historical breakthrough), but to decide which other writers to support.  It was a highly democratic and completely decentralized system.

Facebook is neither. Every post that goes up on Facebook is there because Facebook is looking to make money or gather information from it.  Running a blog in 2008 meant that when I published a popular new post, it wasn’t just bringing in new readers who might take an interest in me, it was also increasing the value of  the blogs of fellow bloggers on my blogroll. More readers for Ken meant more readers for Pliable. More readers for Alex Ross meant more readers for Jessica Duchen or Jeremy Denk.

Now, more readers for Ken means more profit and more power for Facebook. More readers for Pliable means more profit and more power for Facebook. I’d say well over 55% of my readership comes here from FB, especially for the most popular posts, the ones that really take off. Almost all of the remainder come from Twitter or Google searches.  Almost every reader for almost everything I write is making money for or enhancing the power of one of those three companies. 

Blogging as a platform was the first system in human history that offered any individual a chance to publish anything they want at any time for no cost at all in a format that could be accessed by readers anywhere in the world. It was essentially free of corporate influence and free of government meddling. Blogging was a revolutionary tool for holding power to account, for challenging the biases and manipulations of the corporate media, for giving the individual a voice. Five years ago, every blog post had the chance to not only spread healthy ideas and spur debate, had helped to drive readership of other blogs. Linking, blogrolls and other tools amplified this impact.

Facebook, Twitter or Google. Blogging has been completely annexed by the biggest and most powerful corporations on Earth, those with the most disturbing and intimate relationships with government and the corporate media. When I post something, it’s making money for Facebook, Google and Twitter. When I get readers, they sell ads. When people click on a post like this, Facebook, Twitter and Google learn more about that person’s interests and beliefs. When they like or retweet my work, it increases the dominance and relevance of those platforms.

Welcome to A view from the podium. Now brought to you by The Borg.

Welcome to A view from the podium. Now brought to you by The Borg.

This is not to say blogs cannot still be powerful tools. In the classical world, I think it’s fair to say that blogging saved the Minnesota Orchestra last year. Here was a situation where the local corporately-owned press did not seem inclined to help the musicians put their case to the public. Early press coverage and editorial writing seemed to overwhelmingly support the position of the board and the outlook for the musicians looked hopeless.  Public opinion ultimately turned in favor of the players as a result of the heroic advocacy of bloggers like William Eddins, Scott Chamberlain at Mask of the Flower Prince and particularly Emily Hogstad at Song of the Lark. Her tireless reportage of the way in which that labor crisis was engineered from the beginning , her ability to expose the lack of transparency and good –faith bargaining, her meticulous dismantling of all the doublespeak and misinformation, was a classic example of how the truth written on a mere blog can overpower a lie published by a newspaper with a huge circulation.  However, the readership for those crucial posts came there primarily from Facebook and Twitter and it was to those huge corporate sites that most readers returned. Where 7 or 8 years ago the popularity and impact of those posts might have increased readership at other blogs through linking and blogrolls, now it simply enhances the dominance of Facebook, because if you wanted to know the truth about the lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra, you looked on Facebook.  I don’t know about you, but I find the notion of looking for the truth on Facebook more than a little worrying.

Let’s face it, blogs have been drowning in narcissism, opinion, bullshit, typos, piracy, porn and pontifications since they first appeared. These days most “blogs” are just pages of  larger websites from newspapers and magazines- the only difference between a newspaper article or op-ed piece and a blog post seems to be a lack of editoral standards. A blog is assumed to be mostly fanciful observations and opinion- not proper journalism or criticism. That’s all fine.  Blogging was never meant to change the world- the idea of a daily web log is about as tied in to self-obsession and BS as you can get. It just so happened that platforms like WordPress and Blogger offered a thoughtful writer a tool with which to speak the truth, support fellow thinkers and change the world, all for free. Nowadays, what I publish here does little to help other bloggers and instead drives more people through Facebook, Twitter and Google. If I want to promote a new post, the best way to do it is to buy an ad…. on Facebook. The game is rigged- the house always wins.

All of this has happened without debate, discussion or strife. There has been no resistance because resistance is futile. A revolutionary tool  for empowering humanity has been gobbled up by the Borg.

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PS  Please dont’ hesitate to like and share this post of Facebook. Seriously!

2 months ago | |
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“Few, though, will have heard this nonet version of the Serenade, reconstructed by Alan Boustead in the 1980s, for strings, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn. In this live recording a slightly chubby ugly duckling in its orchestral format suddenly achieves lightness and clarity. Thanks to this aptly named Stratford-based ensemble, it has turned into a swan.”

Brahms Serenade The Observer

2 months ago | |
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The music world has seen many well-deserved tributes over the last several weeks for the author, musicologist, composer and critic Malcolm MacDonald, who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer.

Critic and author, Malcolm MacDonald

I never had the good fortune to meet Malcolm (although we did exchange a small number of friendly social media greetings) but I rated him incredibly highly as a person of the greatest musical discernment. His epic book on Brahms is a rare success in the fraught world of musical biography. It’s rarer than rare to find in a single author someone who combines the patience and attention to detail to needed do the research and fact-finding needed to produce an accurate and vivid biographical portrait of a historical person, with the depth of perception and musicianship to say anything really informative and insightful about their music. My studio shelves are littered with books on Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, Brahms and Beethoven that are full of the most appallingly shallow and wrong-headed judgements on selected works of the composers these authors have spent so many years studying. How can a supposed Shostakovich expert not “get” the Seventh or Eighth  Symphonies? How does a Mahlerian misunderstand a work like his Seventh? Why do so few Beethovenians fully appreciate the staggering genius of his early works, which are every bit as great as the music of his  Middle and Late periods, only different in style.  How can a Schumann scholar not recognize the power and originality of the Violin Concerto or the Second Symphony? Mr MacDonald seems to not only understand the greatness of pretty much every work of Brahms he discusses, his succinct summaries of major works throughout the book are full of genuine insights of value to both casual listeners and professional musicians.

Malcolm MacDonald was also a highly respected critic, whose reviews shared the same qualities of insight one finds in his books. I’ve thought for a long time that the word “critic” is one the profession could largely do without, as our modern-day usage of the word has become almost completely entangled with the practice of fault-finding.

I would suggest that the most useful critics would be better thought of as “recognizers-” people who are expert in recognizing what they’re hearing and being able to articulate what is important about it.  Finding obvious fault takes no great skill and does no great good. Anyone who is paying attention can tell when a pianist has played a wrong chord or a horn player has split a note, just as any restaurant goer can tell when their toast is burnt. On the other hand, as anyone who has ever watched Masterchef  or Hell’s Kitchen can testify, there are precious few aspiring cooks who can tell a carrot from a parsnip with a blindfold on. Some struggle to know chicken from fish, or grapes from cherries. A really great foodie, a truly enlightened restaurant critic or a real master chef is one who cannot only tell you what’s wrong with a dish, but what’s right. They can recognize the ingredients. They can recognize the cooking processes.  Given them a raw ingredient they’ve never worked with before, they can taste it and recognize the potential it has- how it would best be cooked, served and presented.

The music industry seems to be in the midst of a recognizer shortage.  Not so much within the critical establishment (they actually seem to be doing remarkably well these days at speaking out in support of new voices, especially as the blogging revolution has brought a new generation of writers into the field), but especially within the industry itself- among our decision-makers, funders and marketers. A critic is in the position to tell us “I think this music has something of real value to say, and I think it’s great we can hear it.” They can only tell us that if someone in the performing world has the guts to say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

We all need recognizers, and I find I, for one, benefit from listening to them. I do not yet completely “get” the music of Havergral Brian, but I continue to engage with it largely because people like Maclom MadDonald recognize something special in it. I figure anyone who understands Brahms so well is unlikely to wrong about Brian, so I stick with it, I keep listening, I keep investing time and energy in trying to “get” the music.

The music of Hans Gál has been very good to me artistically and professionally. Since we started recording it about five years ago, it’s found a very sympathetic reception with listeners and critics (including Mr MacDonald, who wrote favourably, and extremely perceptively, about our first couple of efforts in the Bobby and Hans series here and here).  Why did nobody before us recognize the potential of this music? It was probably an unfortunate combination of small number of recognizers with the ability to look at the score of a Gál symphony and recognize what makes it a compelling work rather than to simply identify the ways in which differs from a work by Mahler or Berg, and, more tellingly, an even smaller number of that group in a position to make a performance of a Gál symphony possible with the courage to put their hand in the air and say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

My own skills (or luck) and nerve as a recognizer, however limited, have proven to be one of my greatest professional assets. There are a lot of good conductors and cellists out there- if one can find new repertoire of real substance that has the potential of finding a sympathetic audience, it can only help your professional cause as a performer.

You would think that the offices of the world’s great orchestras and festivals would be chock-a-block with visionary recognizers. Talk for a while to anyone in artistic planning, and you’ll be astounded at how knowledgeable they are about a huge range of repertoire. But, in my experience, the industry seems to have been built to prevent critical recognition of important music from having any role in determining in what music gets played. We all know the plight of the poor composer who sends scores and CDs of work after work to orchestra after orchestra. Why does this never seem to work? Because the chances of your CD and score ending up in front of a recognizer with the guts to put his hand in the air and say “I think we should play it” are statistically impossible to differentiate from zero. The person you sent that CD isn’t hired to listen to it with a view to recognizing musical greatness, he/she’s trained to look at the name on the cover to see if he/she recognizes the brand he/she’s dealing with.

People in the classical world have built huge systems of committees, agents, artistic administration (isn’t that an oxymoron? :)) and oversight to make sure that nobody in a major arts organization is really in a position to do anoint themselves as real “recognizers,” even if they had the courage to try to. Let’s face it- it’s not really about protecting our audiences from lousy music. We would far rather present a terrible work by an awful composer who is known and established, than take a chance on a masterpiece by a composer whose name is unknown to the public.  Many folks would rather have one of the world’s greatest orchestras “conducted” by a washed-up famous soloist who knows nothing about conducting and almost nothing about score study and rehearsal management than take a chance on an unknown conductor who has learned their craft outside the spotlight. Why- because we recognize the name rather than any particular ability to conduct.

Think again of Hans Gál- the first professional recording of any of his symphonies only took place 120 years after his birth. 120 years. And the thing about Gál was this- he was no outsider, no crank, no recluse, no socially impaired nutjob. His music was promoted by major publishers, he helped found the Edinburgh Festival, he grew up in the centre of Viennese musical life, he taught at  a great university, he was a respected scholar and writer. He was a fairly well-known, well-connected musical figure. And for most of his professional life, orchestras, opera  houses and record companies and their affiliated conductors, artistic planners and producers completely and utterly failed to recognize the significance of his music.

What to do? How is a composer supposed to make their music heard? Well, if I were you, I’d start hunting recognizers. Lets face it, looking for people empowered to stick their necks out in support of the unknown at major arts organizations is like looking for tobacco company lawyers  in Heaven.

But there may be some among your friends, your schoolmates, your local music makers. If you start small, in an arena where you can build personal connections with performers and decision makers, you can start to make things happen.

Promoting your music, however, is probably a dead end, because you need to become a brand that is recognized. If you are not blessed with a name people will greet with curiosity and interest, try a new name. If I were trying to build a composition career, I’d change my name to Shostakovich, Bartók or Stravinsky and concoct a fictitious blood-relationship with my namesake if I were you. Conductors: the time is ripe for another Karajan- you could be his illegitimate 3rd cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are subsequently busted- the scandal will only enhance your fame, your name recognition.  Is there anything else you can do to become famous? Can you join a rock band or become a talking head  (or do both and join the Talking Heads?)? Maybe you can build an international reputation for running a festival (don’t try to pull any of those “recognizing” tricks on your day job, though- keep your opinions to yourself and learn what everyone else thinks is important in the industry), then reveal your compositional genius to the world once your name is known?

And for goodness sake, get your ass on Masterchef. It doesn’t matter how little you know about food, because one day, the programme manager of the Philharmonia Metropolitana will get your CD and score and say “Ah yes, Cameron Stravinsky! He was the guy on Masterchef who mistook passatta for grapefruit juice. My god- 2 million people must have seen that show. Get him on the phone! Let’s commission a symphony from him. And while you’re at it, see if he can transcribe us a Miley Cyrus song for orchestra!”

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UPDATE

It’s great to see the positive response to this post! Thanks for reading, everyone

With hindsight I want to make one distinction hinted at above extra clear- being a “recognizer” is not the same thing as being super opinionated. To go back to the cooking show metaphor- liking this or that kind of food or hating some other dish or ingredient doesn’t mean you can actually distinguish one from the other in a blind taste test. This post is not a call for more people to be more stubborn and forceful about what they like- almost the opposite.

I think the best recognizers are those who can set aside their taste and engage with music on its own terms, rather than looking to music for a validation of their own superiority of taste and intellect. We hear best and wisest when we’re ready to be surprised and challenged by music. We grow the most as artists and listeners when we learn to recognize an idiom we’ve never been able to fully understand. Too many of us listen like too many children eat- we’re too sure of what we’re going to like before we try it.

2 months ago | |
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In part 2 of my look back at the work of the still-controversial Herbert von Karajan, who died 25 years ago this week, I share an essay from Warner Classic’s new box set of music by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, J and R Strauss and Wagner recorded for EMI. A fascinating collection- some surprises, one complete disaster (guess which one!) and some stunning performances.

It’s not unusual to hear the emergence of the Historically Informed Performance movement described as a direct reaction against the “excesses” of Karajan, and his generation’s, interpretations of the Classical and early Romantic repertoire. To be sure, the sound world of Karajan’s Philharmonia and Berlin Philharmonic is relatively far-removed from the leaner textures and tangier timbres of a fine period instrument ensemble, but in many ways, especially in his early career, Karajan’s approach to Mozart, his contemporaries and successors, was not as old-fashioned and heavy-handed as many listeners to these recordings may expect.  In these fairly early performances of several Mozart’s 35th and 39th symphonies, made between 1952 and 1960, Karajan’s tempi in most of Mozart’s fast movements are surprisingly sprightly and the Philharmonia strings play with admirable clarity of articulation and lightness. Although the slow introductions are played quite broadly, the slow movements of both symphonies are played quite flowingly, with and elegant rhythmic lilt.

If Karajan’s Mozart symphonies are surprisingly modern in their approach, his way with the Divertimento K287 and Eine kleine Nachtmusic is decidedly pre-HIP, particularly the opening movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusic, in which every bow stroke seems to have been smoothed and polished as much as acoustically possible. In moments like this, Karajan seems driven to import his gift for seamless legato into music that is clearly written staccato.

Karajan Mozart

Karajan’s approach to early Schubert has much in common with the best of his Mozart symphonies, with this 1958 Berlin Philharmonic performance of the Fifth Symphony is played with remarkable lightness of touch and elegance- qualities not always associated with the Karajan/BPO collaboration.  Love it or loathe it, Karajan and the BPO’s performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is much more what we expect from this most famous coupling of conductor and orchestra—the  slow music is played extremely slowly with an enormous amount of tension, the string sound is weighty and the textures in the louder music are generally massive.  Although Karajan’s BPO was about twice the size of Schumann’s orchestra in Dusseldorf, Karajan insisted that no orchestral retouching (other than the occasional doubling of woodwind parts) was necessary in Schumann’s music, and in spite of the Berliner’s massive string section, the wind writing generally comes across with admirable clarity.

Karajan recorded both the Brahms and Beethoven cycles so frequently that it sometimes seemed that as soon one beautifully produced box set of LPs was released, he and the orchestra would already be hard at work on a remake.  In the case of the Brahms symphonies, these early recordings, made with the Philharmonia in the 1950’s, are prized by many collectors, often above the later remakes. The extent to which one prefers these or Karajan’s later versions with the Berlin Philharmonic depends to a large extent on how simpatico the listener is with Karajan’s very distinctive approach to sound and articulation. There’s no question but that each remake came closer to Karajan’s ideal of  orchestral tone, distinguished by extraordinary depth of string sound and fantastic smoothness of legato playing. However, Karajan’s producer at EMI, Walter Legge, was possibly the only producer Karajan worked with who was possessed of an equally iron will. What sets these early Philharmonia performances of the Brahms symphonies slightly apart from the  later BPO ones is a much greater attention to precision of ensemble- something which Karajan was generally willing to sacrifice later in his career in his quest for the perfect sound.  For many listeners, these early performances integrate many of Karajan’s best qualities as a Brahms interpreter (albeit without the magisterial sound of the BPO to work with) into performances which maintain a greater degree of rhythmic life and clarity of texture than his later remakes.

Karajan’ approach to Bruckner was in many ways distinctly different to that of his contemporary, Eugen Jochum. Jochum’s research led him to believe that Bruckner intended for the performers to use the modification of tempo to underline the structure of the music- hence his tendency to gradually speed up in long developmental passages or dynamic build ups. Karajan’s approach was, right or wrong, more literalistic, tending to keep tempi within a section as solid as granite. His approach is often described as both austere and monumental, and could be incredibly effective- especially when the huge sound of the Karajan-era BPO was deployed on Bruckner’s later works

Karajan’s lifelong fascination with Wagner reached its culmination in the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival. Karajan’s stagings of the complete Wagner operas were often controversial- many critics objected to his productions, which were often directed by Karajan himself, while others objected to his preference for more lyrical voices over the more traditional massive Wagnerian voices. In the pit, Karajan insisted the orchestra play like a large-scale chamber ensemble, demanding extreme clarity of texture and lightness of touch when accompanying the singers. However, Karajan was always more than willing to unleash the full weight and power of the BPO’s sound when Wagner’s music calls for it, as in these 1957-1960 recordings of Wagner’s most popular orchestral numbers, with the Berlin Philharmonic produced by Walter Legge.

If Karajan’s Wagner was often controversial, few commentators ever doubted his way with the music of Richard Strauss. As with Brahms, Karajan’s earlier recordings of Strauss with the Philharmonia under the watchful eye of Walter Legge may lack the depth of sound and sheen of legato that his later Berlin Philharmonic performances achieve, but they generally evince a higher level or precision of ensemble and clarity of rhythm. Karajan was never known as a great musical humourist, and his performance of Till Eulenspiegel begins in rather solemn fashion, but what the performance lacks in wit, it makes up for in sheer virtuosity, especially in the later part of the work when the tempi really take flight.  Death and Transfiguration, however, was always a work that suited Karajan’s temperament and intensity.

Karajan’s recordings of highlights from the mainstays of Vienese operetta, made with the Philharmonia  in the mid-1950’s have never been out of print, and it remained music he conducted with great affection and great attention to detail throughout his long career.  This collection offers the listeners the chance to compare the classic 1955 performances of Suppé’s Light Calvary Overture, Johnann Strauss II’s Titsch-Tratsch Polka and Johan Strauss I’s Radetzky March  with those made in 1960 in decidedly more opulent modern sound.  A quick check of track timings will show that Karajan’s tempi had all slowed slightly over in the intervening years, but that the orchestra had gained in sonic opulence. So it usually was with this most sound-obsessed of conductors.

3 months ago | |
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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Herbert von Karajan- one of the most influential, accomplished, controversial and contradictory musicians who ever lived.

Not too long ago, I was asked to provide introductory essays for two volumes the Warner’s news collection of EMI-era Karajan recordings. It was a fascinating challenge, but one I seriously considered not taking on simply because Karajan remains such a divisive figure, both as a person and a musician.

In the end, I took the gig. The two sets comprise an enormous amount of very diverse repertoire- it made for fascinating, if exhausting listening. Karajan’s sound concept was famously strong and consistent, but as a performer, I find him more of a risk-taker than most people think. Some things he does really take flight, others crash and burn- not only interpretively, but occasionally technically. In any case, it’s a unique body of work, and one I’ve learned a lot from over the years. He was often surprisingly good in non-Germanic repertoire, as can be seen in many of the performances included in this set.

Few of the major mid 20th. C.  Austro-German conductors such as Eugen Jochum, Karl Bohm and Otto Klemperer explored much of the repertoire outside the Austro-German tradition. In this respect, Herbert von Karajan was both more international and a more modern figure than many of his contemporary colleagues. In many cases, studying Karajan’s forays into French, Russian and Eastern European repertoire can be highly illuminating in illustrating the characteristics of his approach to interpretation and orchestral training..

Debussy’s La Mer was a long-time Karajan favorourite, which he first conducted with his orchestra at Aachen in 1935. His next performances of the work took place in the more glamorous environs of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1939, programmed, as in 1935, alongside another non-Germanic Karajan staple, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Performances in France followed in 1944, and the work remained in Karajan’s repertoire through one of his last European tours in 1985. This performance from 1977 in many ways captures the best qualities Karajan brings to French music- a flair for sonic sensuality, an ability to find fluidity in moderate tempi and a visceral delight in sheer orchestral virtuosity.

Karajan Bartok

If Debussy’s greatest orchestral masterwork, La Mer, was a lifelong Karajan favourite, Ravel’s La Valse, probably that composer’s  finest piece of orchestral concert music, was a work Karajan had a more complex relationship with. The Karajan archive shows early concert performances of it with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1934, in Aachen in 1936 and in Stockholm in 1938, but after this point, he seems to have not returned to the work in concert. With that in mind, Karajan’s lone recording of the work with the Orchestre de Paris in 1971 is a rather  precious document, and a compelling one- again there is ample evidence Karajan’s ability to conjure impressively seductive and decadent colours from the orchestra and the work’s final plunge into oblivion is played with trademark Karajan intensity. Where Karajan is possibly less convincing in French music is in capturing a truly idiomatic sense of elegance and classicism. His recording of Le Tombeau de Couperin takes on a distinctly Germanic weight in the Menuet, but the Prelude thrives on Karajan’s obsession with legato playing. Ravel’s Spanish-infected music was quite central to Karajan’s repertoire, and he conducted the Rhapsodie espagnole often, especially in the heart of his career from the 1950’s through the 70’s. Bolero, however, was a true Karajan party piece which he performed countless times, recorded in Berlin for DG and filmed for Sony in 1985. This performance comes from near the end of his tenure as “music advisor” of the Orchestre de Paris in 1971.

Karajan’s affection for music with a Spanish flavour also comes through in his sparkling rendition of Chabrier’s beloved orchestral bonbon, Espana. Karajan had developed something of a reputation as a master of the short, light orchestral showpiece in recordings with the Philharmonia from the 1950’s, but his latter career saw him cultivating an ever more serious persona, and lighter repertoire like Espana appeared only rarely on concerts like the Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s Concert in 1979, when he conducted the work for the last time, alongside his final performance of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite. These recorded performances come from sessions in preparation for that concert, and show Karjan and the BPO unleashing on Bizet’s modest suite a surely-unprecedented degree of sheer orchestral power.

Karajan was not by nature a completist, especially in repertoire outside the German canon, and his enthusiasm for the music of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky tended to be narrowly focused on these composers’ most famous symphonic works. The Berlin Philharmonic’s most famous and important contribution to the recorded legacy of Antonin Dvorak is the set of the complete symphonies recorded with Raphael Kubelik between 1966 and 1973. These recordings of the last two Dvorak symphonies were made by Karajan and BPO in 1977 and 1979 and are vastly different in tone and style from Kubelik’s. Karajan’s sound world is darker, the string playing more sustained and cushioned, and there is an emphasis on intensely expressive crescendi that can only be achieved at the expense of some of the remarkable sense of forward motion, rhythmic bite and clarity of articulation Kubelik had achieved only a few years earlier. Karajan’s Dvorak seems to be at its best in the moments of high tragedy and dramatic portent, notably in the Introduction to the New World and the anguished final pages of that work’s Finale, which successfully remind the listener that, for all it’s tunefulness and enduring popularity, Dvorak’s final symphony is a deeply tragic work.

If Karajan was subjective in programming the music of 19th c. Eastern European  masters, he was even more selective in programming the music of his own lifetime. However, he could be an effective advocate for those works he took into his repertoire, not least because of the sheer marketing power and prestige of his associations with the BPO and his various recording partners. Karajan first conducted Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1953 and showed a real affinity for the piece- the mixed meters of the first movement roll forward naturally, and the second movement avoids bogging down as so many performances did before Sir Georg Solti discovered Bartók’s correct metronome marking in the 1980’s. Bartók’s super-virtuosic Finale certainly holds no terror’s for this most super-virtuosic of orchestras, but what comes across most consistently in this recording is Karajan’s consistent respect for the letter of the score (notably Bartók’s metronome markings), and the result is a performance that is remarkably idiomatic.

Karajan’s affinity for the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies was life-long. He first conducted the Fifth Symphony with Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra in 1929 at the age of twenty-one. The Pathetique came into his repertoire during his time as conductor of the very modest orchestra at Ulm in 1933, and he first conducted the Fourth, probably the most technically demanding of the three for the conductor, while Music Director in Aachen in 1937. Karajan unleashes a tremendous brass onslaught in the “Fate” fanfare which opens the Fourth- perhaps not surprising from a conductor who was known to double and even triple the trumpets in his orchestra. However, if the opening leaves one expecting a reading of extrovert virtuosity, Karajan’s approach in the main body of the first movement is surprisingly lyrical, even in the fortissimos, and in many ways, rather classical- largely eschewing extremes of tempo and rubato. This somewhat classical approach to Tchaikovsky’s dramatic language is not actually all that far away from that of Evgeny Mravinsky, one of the few conductors Karajan considered a true equal (perhaps not least because Mravinsky was one of the few conductors capable of being every bit as autocratic as Karajan is often reported to have been). If the Karajan’s reading of the symphony hints at the Fourth’s capacity to serve as a vehicle for pure orchestral display, his reading of the Finale goes more completely down that path. Karajan’s perhaps-uneasy balance of textual fidelity, classicism and orchestral virtuosity  can be heard equally well in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies which complete this collection.

3 months ago | |
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A new review of the recent Somm CD of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and Brahms’s Serenade in D major from critic Gavin Dixon at Classical CD Reviews

Somm 0139 Cover

“. But this group, the string trio Ensemble Epomeo with three extra players, instead strives for, and achieves, clarity of line and texture. The textures are appropriately bass heavy, and the two cellos dominate, but every line comes through with exceptional clarity. This gives the piece a new profile, with the complex but now clear counterpoint driving the music and leading the ear through the harmonic web. There is atmosphere here too, and much warmth in the ensemble’s sound, but that is never at the expense of the individual lines…The chamber version of the Serenade is similarly open in its textures and is presented with equal clarity and precision. This time round, though, there is less need for such an analytical approach. Even in its larger version, this work is all about clarity and directness of expression. Woods, who now moves from the cello desk to the podium, gives an appropriately bright and carefree account. The players interact well, and there is a clear unity of intent within the ensemble. “

http://www.classical-cd-reviews.com/2014/07/brahms-schoenberg-ensemble-epomeo.html

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[Click here to Explore the Score of the companion work on this CD- Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 in D major, Original Version for Nonet)

The Brahms-Wagner rivalry was largely an affair of the press, whipped up by critics like the Brahmsian Eduard Hanslick and his pro-Wagnerian rivals. Brahms actually professed great admiration for Wagner’s music on many occasions. Nonetheless, there was a time when the two men were perceived as embodying irreconcilable aesthetic approaches. In the end, it was Arnold Schönberg who succeeded in Verklärte Nacht and the works which followed it, in marrying the joint influences of Wagner and Brahms as no one had before.

Brahms’s music- its density, richness and rigour- had a profound influence on Arnold Schönberg’s development, and his engagement with Brahms’s music continued throughout his career. Schönberg’s writings about the music of Brahms, particularly his essay “Brahms the Progressive,” are among the most illuminating analyses of the older composer’s work, and his arrangement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor for full orchestra has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. From Brahms, Schönberg learned the creative possibilities of the perpetual manipulation and development of tiny motivic cells, an approach that would eventually form the underpinning of the 12-tone technique. This kind of rigorously detailed approach to composition is already fully developed in Verklärte Nacht.  Brahms’s favourite technique of “developing variation” (a term coined by Schönberg which refers to the constant development of small musical ideas throughout a piece) is also essential in Schönberg’s music. Brahms’s approach to most classical forms differs from that of his forerunners in that Brahms’s music is almost never simply expository nor recapitulatory:  the musical material starts to develop and evolve almost as soon as the piece starts, and the process of constant change carries right through to the end.

Originally written as a string sextet (for two violins, two violas and two cellos) over just three weeks in 1899, and arranged by the composer in 1917 for large string orchestra, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) takes its title from a poem by Richard Dehmel, published in the collection Weib und Welt (Woman and World) in 1896. Modern readers might be amused to read that Dehmel was tried for obscenity and blasphemy when Weib und Welt was published. While the acknowledgment and exploration of female sexuality in Verklärte Nacht and some of Dehmel’s other poems might have raised eyebrows, the worldview expressed in them, and the association of female sexuality with shame and guilt, now seems rather conservative and paternalistic. Modern readers may find the poem’s apotheosis, in which “the man” forgives and accepts “the woman” in spite of her sexual transgressions both deeply touching and hugely condescending. Nonetheless, Schönberg’s inspired reaction to Dehmel’s poetry works its own transfiguration on its literary model, elevating and intensifying the meaning and symbolism of the original. It is hard to overstate Dehmel’s influence on Schönberg’s evolution in the late 1890’s. Schönberg had set several poems by Dehmel in 1897, and 1899 is sometimes called his “Dehmeljahr,” (“year of Dehmel”) in which he spent almost the entire year setting poems from Weib und Welt, culminating in the breakthrough that was Verklärte Nacht. Musicologist Walter Frisch says that Schönberg’s “remarkable development that year …grew directly out his search for a musical language approapriate to the poetry of Weib und welt,” inspired by Dehmel’s success in combining erotic sensuality and intensity of expression with clear formal structure.

A work like Verklärte Nacht might seem to be a huge departure from the classical forms preferred by Brahms- Webern even described it as a “free fantasia.” However, although the work is programmatic, with obvious influences of Wagner and Liszt, it is hardly free. Schönberg found in Dehmel’s poem a way to combine elements of two traditional, strict, even Brahmsian, musical forms: the fundamental structure is that of a Rondo (or A-B-A-C-A), incorporating elements of Sonata-Allegro form . The “A” sections set the tone and lay out the narrative of the work (Schönberg described them as “epic” in character), while the “B” section represents the woman’s confession of her illegitimate pregnancy and the “C” section depicts the man’s tender forgiveness and acceptance of her. It’s not only that lucid form in which Brahms’s influence can be felt, but in the way that Schönberg begins the development and transformation of his material in the work’s opening bars and continues the process throughout. The “transfiguration” of the work’s title is manifest in the way in which the “A” section changes character each time it occurs- beginning with mystery and dread, returning in anguish and desperation and completing its journey in radiant joy. The piece is tonal—beginning in D minor and ending in D major—but also shows Schönberg exploring completely new harmonic territory. In fact, the piece was originally considered unfit for performance because of Schönberg’s use of an unresolved “ninth” chord. Early listeners may also have been shocked by the intensity and density of Schönberg’s counterpoint- passionate and sensuous as the piece is, there is already a strong element of Schönberg-ian “difficulty” present in the music.  What sets Verklärte Nacht apart from the works which precede it is the extent to which, as successfully as it marries Wagnerian chromaticism and narrative to Brahmsian rigour, the compositional voice is clearly the fully-formed and completely original one belonging to Arnold Schönberg.

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Pianist Howard Karp (photo by Katrin Talbot)

Pianist Howard Karp (photo by Katrin Talbot)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post titled “If you buy only one recording this year, make it this one.”

The recording in question is a new six-disc collection of live performances by the American pianist Howard Karp, released in May by Albany Records. Howard Karp died on Monday, June 30, 2014 at the age of 84 after suffering a cardiac arrest. He  was surrounded by his wife Frances and his two sons Parry and Christopher. Although the set was only released last month, I’ve been listening to and thinking about it for nearly a year, ever since the Karp family paid me the enormous compliment of asking me to write the program notes for it.

It is sad that that blog post will never quite exist in the form it should have- none of us guessed we could lose him so soon. Although Howard was 84, he seemed anything but old. He had spent the last few months learning Leon Kirchner’s last two Piano Sonatas and working up some works by Liszt that he had never played. In the week of his passing he was to have played the Brahms A major Violin Sonata in a recital at the Rocky Ridge festival with his son (my teacher and dear friend), cellist Parry Karp. Together, they’ve recently recorded Parry’s transcriptions of all the Brahms violin and piano music.

Ever since Parry wrote me with the sad news of Howard’s passing, I’ve wondered what, if anything, I should say about Howard here. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary or a summing up of Howard’s legacy, so instead, let me say the following:

If you buy only one new recording this year, make it this one. Not only will these CDs give you a better sense of Howard’s artistry than anything I could write here, there’s so much one can learn from them.

Karp Albany

Why?

It’s not just that the performances are mind-blowingly sensational. It’s what they have to teach us about the kind of musician Howard was- the kind we all ought to aspire to be.

Taken from unedited recital recordings made across Karp’s 50+year career, this collection is a wonderful overview of his gifts as a pianist and a musician.  The performances are astounding even to those who knew his playing best. His wife and duo partner, pianist Frances Karp wrote to me on receiving the set from the record company “Even though I lived through the preparation of all the repertoire, I am stunned to hear the finished  performances: beautiful, strong, intelligent, fantastically moving.” No amount of familiarity could make one take his artistry for granted.

Howard was a conspicuously kind, wise, caring and sensitive human being, with a distinctively soft-edged and warm speaking voice. Something of that warmth of spirit came through in everything I ever heard Howard play across 25-plus years, particularly in his unique sound. He had one of the great piano sounds- deep, multi-layered, warm, resonant and cultured. You can hear this aspect of his artistry in Howard’s extraordinary performances of late Schubert in this set. He was a great exponent of what one might call the “poetic” piano tradition.

But there was more to Howard’s art than wisdom, sensitivity and culture. Howard was also capable of embracing and unleashing the demonic and Dyonisian forces within music like few musicians I can think of. There are moments in Howard’s performances of works like the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Schumann Concerto without Orchestra, or his earlier live recording of the Liszt B Minor Sonata that teeter, in the very best sense of the expression, right on the edge of divine madness. Howard could set such challenges for himself not only in terms of sheer tempo, but in intensity of expression, that the listener can’t helped but be gripped by a genuine sense of pure risk. Howard was one of the few pianists who ever lived with the technical tools to cope with the challenges he set himself in performances like these- again and again, he comes through performances of inspired danger completely unscathed, but one senses that even Howard never spared himself from taking big chances on stage. Success was never certain, but it was almost always the outcome.

This incredible balance of abandon and control, fire and refinement caught the ear of many critics, though he never sought their approval to the best of my knowledge. On the occasion of his Berlin debut, the notoriously tough local critic said “the American pianist Howard Karp combines the finest qualities of Rubinstein and Horowitz in a single artist.” Many artists would have broadcast such a quote to the heavens- Howard seemed to lack any instinct for self-promotion. He could hardly be persuaded to talk about himself even in the preparation of the liner notes for this set of CDs.

So, here in these six discs is evidence of one of the great pianists of  his generation, captured completely live at the height of his powers. It’s a collection that should secure his place in the piano pantheon forever. In the end, however, what I find impressive about these CDs is what they don’t tell us about Howard Karp, what they can’t tell us. That’s part of why one should get to know them- to be begin to understand what of Howard lay beyond them.

These discs can’t, by themselves, tell us how he balanced his commitment to playing at the very, very highest level with his dedication to teaching. They only hint at the breadth of his repertoire. If  Howard felt he had played a piece as well as he could, he moved on to other works (some of the most extraordinary performances in the set are of works he only played once or twice), and he literally never stopped learning new repertoire. And they can’t begin to do justice to his astounding work ethic- family members will tell you: nobody ever practiced the piano with more intensity or devotion than Howard Karp.

Embedded in these remarkable performances is an inspiring example for all musicians. Howard never sought the trappings of fame or the validation of the press. He chose, instead, a quieter path, developing life-long collaborations with friends and family, building an incredible legacy as a teacher and mentor and following his own curiosity in his exploration of the repertoire. Those of us lucky enough to hear him in Madison in his solo recitals, duo concerts with his wife Frances, sonata performances with his son Parry and the annual Karp Family concert in September all knew we were in the presence of something very special every time he took the stage. Even these remarkable CDs can’t capture every facet of that remarkable sound.

Howard Karp in Colorado with his two closest musical collaborators, wife, Frances and son, Parry. (photo by Katrin Talbot)

Howard Karp in Colorado with his two closest musical collaborators, wife, Frances and son, Parry. (photo by Katrin Talbot)

I hope you’ll spend some time listening to these performances because they’re as good testament as we have to a great artist who managed to do all the right things as a performer and teacher at the right level for the right reasons. It’s a deeply inspiring legacy.

____________________________________________

More on Howard Karp from the Isthmus newspaper in Madison here.

Thoughts from Jake Stockinger at the Well Temprered Ear, here.

A tribute from the UW-Madison School of Music with commentary from Karp’s friend and student, Bill Lutes, here

UPDATE-

Anthony Tomasini offers an extensive assessment of Howard’s performances in these recordings here. A sample

“Karp clearly thrived in concerts, because the performances in this collection are palpably assured. In six pieces from Liszt’s daunting, visionary suites “Années de Pélerinage” (“Years of Pilgrimage”), recorded at various universities mostly during the ’70s, Karp’s playing is technically brilliant and profoundly musical. How is it possible that a pianist who could play Liszt like this was not signed up and sent on tour by a major manager? From what I knew of him, though, Karp would not have been interested….The highlights of the set are performances of two major Schumann works: the Sonata No. 3 in F minor, in 1967, and the Fantasy, in 1972, both recorded at the University of Illinois. Schumann’s Fantasy blends Beethovenian structure with, appropriate to its title, fantastical wildness. Karp uncannily conveys both qualities at once. His account of the Sonata in F minor, subtitled Concerto Without Orchestra, is revelatory. Though this epic work has arresting qualities, it is at its core baffling, ungainly and complex music. While playing with consummate pianism, Karp conveys the strangeness in the piece, as in the seemingly chaotic stretches of development in the first movement.

UPDATE 2

An extensive review from Colin Anderson at Classical Source

“Yet, from nowhere (for me at any rate), here is Karp giving readings of these masterworks that are of the first rank, at once seriously good renditions of the chosen pieces and also acting as a ladder of enlightenment as to the interpretative and technical skills (the latter serving the former) of the now-late musician. Inevitably, given that these are recordings made at concerts and over a 45-year period (nevertheless the set is branded DDD!), the sound-quality is variable, so too the instruments that Karp had at his disposal. And while one may have some reservations about both, the authority of Karp’s playing is such that doubts are banished by his excellence.

Howard Karp (1929-2014)“Rather than write in detail on the performances here, it would be more pertinent to simply say that, especially if you are new to Karp’s musicianship, for anyone who cares about the great art of playing the piano, and also about penetrating musicianship – and allying the two – then you need to hear these performances; there is much that is illuminating and rewarding, and such revelations are complemented by conductor Kenneth Woods’s extensive essay for the booklet.”

More inspiring Howard Karp recordings you should hear.


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A four-star review in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine from critic Erica Jeal.

“…weaves together beautifully played solos culminating in a transcendent coda in which this orchestra seems to breathe together.”

BBC Music Bobby and Hans 4  p 1

BBC Music Bobby and Hans 4  p 2

4 months ago | |
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