Month: September 2013

J.S. Bach: “Prelude” Cello Suite #2 in D Minor (Comparative Analysis)

For crucial information on Johann Sebastian Bach & the Baroque Period, please check out my previous post titled (The Goldberg Variations: Comparative Analysis of Glenn Gould’s “Aria” & First Variation (1955 vs. 1981).

In this particular post, we will look deeper into the life and accomplishments of Pablo Casals, a Spaniard who lived from 1876-1973. Regarded as the pre-eminent cellist of the first half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest cellists of all time, Casals became most prominent due to the infamous Bach Cello Suites. It took him roughly 3 years (from 1936-1939), to share the Suites with the world. Throughout his life, he made many recordings of solo, chamber, and orchestral music, while also functioning as a conductor.

Bach composed his Suites during the years 1717-1723, when he served as Kapellmeister in Köthen, Germany. Though the Suites are intended as Cello repertoire, they have been transcribed for numerous instruments including the violin, viola, double bass, viola da gamba, mandolin, piano, marimba, classical guitar, recorder, electric bass, horn, saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, ukulele, and even the charango, (which is a small Andean wooden lute.)

J.S. Bach

The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach are some of the most performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello.

The suites are in six movements each, and have the following structure and order of movements: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuette 1 & 2, and Gigue. Considered as a systematic conceived cycle, Bach’s suites are the most consistent in order of their movements. Interestingly enough, the entire set of suites consist only of one single melodic line, which was a common technique during the Baroque Period.

We will be reviewing Cello Suite II: Prelude 

A rather inquisitive string of events connected Bach’s composition of the suites, and the manuscripts ensuing disappearance in the eighteenth century. Pablo Casal’s made a remarkable historic discovery of the long lost music in Spain during the late nineteenth century, and popularized the suites several decades later. Award winning journalist and filmmaker, Eric Siblin wrote a book titled “The Cello Suites, J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for the Baroque masterpiece.” The book contains six chapters, one for each suite, and Casal’s said “(regarding the Prelude from suite two)… The key is minor, the three notes a tragic triad. The tones move closer and closer to a harrowing vision, weaving spider-like, relentlessly gathering sound into tighter concentric circle that come to an abrupt stop. Nothing fills the empty space. A tiny prayer is uttered […] How could anybody think of Bach as ‘cold’ when these [cello] suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry,” Casals said. “As I got on with the study I discovered a new world of space and beauty… the feelings I experienced were among the purest and most intense in my artistic life!”

I most certainly enjoyed Casal’s description of the Prelude because I too, invoked images of a web-weaving spider stringing together a series minor notes. Pablo Casal’s was a mere thirteen years of age when his first cello came into his possession. As a child, he and his father walked the back streets in search of sheet music. To their dismay, they came across the Cello Suites tucked into a dark corner, almost as though the music was waiting to be found. It became Casal’s obsession to play them every day for twelve years before perfecting, and publicly performing them for Spain to hear.

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The early recording of Prelude starts off with a sense of tonal sadness. During the introduction, Casal’s plays with light pressure to his bow, as one note is strung to the next without much effort.  The strings seem to entwine, weaving together a web of legato mournfulness. There is a strong sense of sorrow in this depiction of Prelude, and it is amplified in the 1964 recording. The combination of the bow on strings creates a satisfying, yet nasally timbral quality, which causes the listener to focus 100% on each note that is played. The quality of the room tone and playing dynamics also draw the listener in to the raw talent of Pablo Casals as he channels Bach’s Suites in the early 1700’s.

Pablo Casals & His Cello 

Here is Casal’s depiction of Prelude:

I decided to compare the playing techniques of Casals with Mr. Mstislav Rostropovich, who was born in 1927 in Russia. Rostropovich was a Soviet cellist and conductor, and was considered to be the greatest cellist of the 2nd half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time. It’s almost as though Rostropovich picks up where Casal’s left off with the Suites, as he provides a completely updated recording, and playing experience for those listening. Both recordings are entirely different from one another (aside from recording quality of course), both musicians play their own unique interpretation of Bach’s Suites.

Mstislav Rostropovich & His Cello

While I found Casals version to be “up close and personal”, causing a rather emotional effect, Rostropovich creates a bed of tonal bliss for our ears to float upon. While getting quite lost in his interpretation, Prelude takes on a new face of legato beauty that can’t quite be mimicked by another. Some critiques mentioned Rostropovich taking too many artistic liberties with his interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites. I, however, quite enjoy the sense of “washed-out” reverb caused by recording in that particular Cathedral. There is a natural glow that provides a strong essence of space and time, that we seem to get lost in. As a devoted advocate of human rights and musical talent, Mstislav won 50 different awards that reflected his art without borders. He fought for freedom of speech, and democratic values which sadly resulted in harassment from the Soviet regime. Regardless of his continual struggles with his country, (for example, being banned from several musical ensembles), he remained a giving, and loving solider of both humanist values, and a passionate musical touch and technique.

Rostropovich’s personality shines through his interpretation of the Bach Cello Suites. Though his loose interpretation has been controversial to some, Rostropovich’s “touch” is entirely distinctive. As he connects the Prelude dots, each note is strung together in one long fluid motion. His attempts at expressing dynamic range are much cleaner, as the recording quality is much newer than the Casals Prelude.

There is a sense of emotion brought out by both articulation and dynamics in both Casal’s and Rostropovich’s recordings. However, due to the quality of Rostropovich’s Prelude, we can hear more of the crescendos and decrescendos he choose to make use of. Casal’s made more use of fermatas (held out notes), and accelerandos (gradual accelerating/quickening in time.)

Overall, I hear two very different interpretations of the same piece of music. I don’t enjoy one more than the other, but I would listen to the Casal’s version when I want to shut my eyes and listen to a fabulous cellist tie me in to his work emotionally. If I want to read or study and have beautiful, ear tingling background music, I would listen to Mstislav Rostropovich’s interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites.

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The Goldberg Variations: Comparative Analysis of Glenn Gould’s “Aria” & First Variation (1955 vs. 1981)

Born in 1685 in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach has been quoted as the master of counterpoint music. In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously. This musical style matured during the Renaissance and Common Practice Era, which spanned throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods in (1600-1900). J.S. Bach was arguably the most regarded Harpsichordist, Organist, Violinist, and Violist who composed music during the Baroque Period, which spanned throughout the years (1600-1750). He was revered for his intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty that permeated throughout his many composed pieces of music. The Baroque Period followed the Mediaeval Renaissance Era, which lasted through the years (1400-1600). Next, The Classical Era had blossomed, and spanned throughout the years (1730/50-1820).

Music from the Baroque Period was well versed in tonality. Commonly, “tonality” refers to a system or language of music in which specific hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a “key” center- the tonic triad. Another alluring piece of information is that the word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “Barroco”, which means “misshapen pearl.” This is in fact,  a negative description of the incredibly ornate and ornamented music that was composed during this period.

The “Goldberg” Variations refer to the final series of Harpsichord repertoire that Bach had published under the title of Clavierübung in 1741. There is a very interesting story that comes along with Bach’s Variations, yet naturally, as time goes on, stories change, as do the facts. There was a very wealthy count that was in poor health due to chronic Insomnia. The count had a young Harpsichordist apprentice named Goldberg, whom he would take to have music lessons with Bach. The Count commissioned Bach to write a piece of music to help with his health and insomnia. Once composed, Goldberg would play them to help the count rest easily before he would fall asleep. The Goldberg Variations are often regarded as the most serious and ambitious composition ever written for Harpsichord, and the most important set of variations composed in the Baroque Era.

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In 1955, Canadian born Glenn Gould was signed to Colombia Records when he was a mere 22 years of age. When he walked into Colombia, all he desired was to make his big debut recording the Goldberg Variations. The producers sat him down at the piano and allowed him to release his incredible talents for the world to hear. To say the least, everyone in Colombia Records was shocked by the utter lucidity Gould had displayed behind the piano keys. No one had ever heard the Goldberg Variations played with such clarity, and they became one of the most important classical recordings of all time.

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Gould fell in love with the art of recording because he was an extremely self-critical individual with performance anxiety. As a result, he rarely would perform in front of people. At one point in his career, he predicted that people wouldn’t even be performing anymore due to the advent of recording technology. This prediction was a little steep, but in today’s day in age, recording has become incredibly essential to artist development.

“Aria” is a theme with 32 different variations, or short compositions based on the bass movement of the Aria. It is a sarabande, meaning that it is a dance in triple meter. The second and third beats of each measure are often tied, giving the dance a distinctive rhythm or altering quarter and eighth notes.  Aria is set in 3/4 time, and features a heavily ornamented melody. Again, this was the type of music the Baroque Period was known for. According to the French style of ornamentation, ornaments are suppose to be apart of the melody, though others disagreed.

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Gould’s 1955 recording of “Aria” demonstrated an undoubtable talent through the touch of his fingers. The piece begins with a sweet-tempered legato, as Gould stays relatively true to form. There is an incredible amount of clarity between each note played, allowing each tone to fully ring through. Aria is gently played, without much dynamic range or intensified articulation. The theme is melodically complex, with an ongoing vibe of tranquility, and harmonic completeness. While the Aria theme is rather docile in nature, Variation 1 breaks out with a sense of urgency. There is virtually no dynamic range, and each note is played with the same tonal intent and volume. There are no fermatas, crescendos, or decrescendos. Each note that is played holds the same amount of rapid significance. In this recording, Gould’s talents are demonstrated by his sense of showmanship. It’s as though he’s showing the world how quickly he can play, and with such fleeting precision, he became remarkably applauded.

Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations once more in 1981, just one year before his passing. These particular recordings were strikingly different, with more articulation, dynamic range, and thought-out touch behind each note struck. Aria was played with much more reflection, and in my opinion, Gould knew his life was coming to an end. Through his touch, you can hear the sentimentality behind each key. Even in his singing voice there is a sense of sadness, and contemplation. Notes are held longer, and there is less emphasis on adamant timing. Gould hangs on to plenty of fermatas, and uses his sustain pedal most tastefully. The piece is played very quietly, yet contains more of a gentle rise and fall in crescendos and decrescendos. This 1981 recording is extremely easy to get lost in, and time seems to fade away in the 3:05 it captivates your ears. In Variation 1, the fundamental tones are incredibly articulated while the rhythm in the right hand forces the emphasis on the second beat, giving rise to syncopation from bars 1 to 7. Instead of playing astonishingly fast, Gould focuses much more on the creative freedom of each note played in this variation. There is a sense of attitude where he chooses to accent the rhythm notes, and it’s almost a different piece compared to the 1955 recording.

This is the original studio video during which Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1981. Take note not only of his playing style, but of the height of his chair, and hunch of his back over the piano keys. He was also known to sing and hum along as he played, which helped put him into a musical trance.

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (Happy 100 years!)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, touched music in a way that was unheard of in the early 1900’s. Although he was the son of one of the Mariinsky Theater’s principal basses and a talented amateur pianist, Stravinsky had no more musical training than that of any other Russian upper-class child. When it came time, he attended law school, but also decided to begin private composition and orchestration studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and ballet impresario, was  impressed by Stravinsky’s talents, and asked him to orchestrate and compose ballets for his company, Ballet Russes. Stravinksy composed a triad of ballets; The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and then most importantly, The Rite of Spring (1913). This was the piece of music that established his career, and changed the face of music from that point forward.

With the infamous thirty-three minute “Rite of Spring”, Stravinsky was considered to be one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. He became known all over the world for his stylistic diversity, technical use of rhythm and harmony, and an awe-inspiring musical career that spanned over seven decades. Exactly 100 years ago, the tumultuous Rite of Spring was performed in Paris for the first time, and the crowds broke out in violent riots. Unlike anything anyone had ever heard, the music had the power to bring out the savage brutality between those listening. Written on the eve of the first world war, and the Russian revolution, the Rite of Spring was both rebellious and gut-wrenching.  During Nijinsky’s provocative choreography, the music was often inaudible due to the sheer volume and abuse between instruments. While the performance was on the edge of collapse, its allure has perplexed composers and musicians a century later. As a key moment in cultural history, the Rite of Spring was truly revolutionary.

Here is a live version of the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and completed with 250 dancers.

During my own listening, I couldn’t help but notice the razor-sharp editing between phrases. These orchestration choices unsettled the smooth, seamless flow of the Germanic symphonic tradition with ruthless efficacy. Stravinsky’s work contains musical materials that slice into one another, and interact and blend with the most brutal edges. This style challenged the musical perspective and logic that dominated European music for centuries prior. The Rite of Spring explodes with a sense of anti- Romanticism, and often shocks the listener with an ever-changing usage of rhythm. Frequently, the seemingly enormous orchestra hammers its clamoring notes in unison. The commotion through-out the piece is on the verge of being out of control, yet Stravinsky takes us to a peak in which we question our own motives.

Conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 version of Rite of Spring was recorded in stereo and known for both clarity and production. Bernstein described The Rite saying, “Only one of your everyday volcanic masterpieces…a miraculous new creation of such originality and power that still today it shocks and overwhelms us.” I’d say “Volcanic,” “miraculous,” “originality,” and “power” are words that might well describe Bernstein’s 1958 recording, too. Bernstein at the time was just taking over the reins of the New York Philharmonic and about to shape it back into the best ensemble it had ever been. The Rite was only the beginning. He translated Stravinsky’s piece with sheer energy, excitement, and thrill, while re-exposing its mastery.

Here’s a video of Bernstein conducting a rehearsal for Rite of Spring.

I chose to compare and contrast the conducting styles of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.  Through different techniques, the same piece of music becomes vastly different. The introduction of The Rite opens with an Oboe. In Ozawa’s version, he utilizes a vibrato technique which stresses the uneasiness of the music. Though both the conductors play a piece that last the same amount of time, Ozawa’s version seems to be shorter. The instruments play with the intention to finish, right as it starts playing. Seiji Ozawa also takes more artistic liberties with stylistic approach, while Bernstein’s version may be more true to form.

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The opening woodwinds blend with the Oboe and Clarinet to produce an agitated feeling, and listeners are already on the edge of their seats. The intro of The Rite starts off as being melodic, but doesn’t last that way for long. Gradually, a tension builds and the dynamic range grows in intensity. I continually envision a windstorm stirring, as leaves blow on a cold evening. When the weather picks up, the myriad of instruments get into a nerve-wracking conversation. A  bassoon with a throaty, human voice-like quality, has a shrill buzzing timbre that stirs up the rest of the orchestra. The various instruments begin playing louder, and with more intent. In Bernstein’s version, beneath the rigidness, a violin is plucked with a pizzicato technique. This occurs mainly in the left speaker which provides a sense of stereo imaging.  All of a sudden, the “big bad wolf” pops into my mind as the orchestra hammers notes in unison, this time in the right speaker. It sounds as though the instruments with a higher timbre, such as the cellos, violins, violas, and flutes, are the innocent victims being chased by the louder, lower-frequency instruments. The smaller, higher-frequency instruments are doing anything they can to escape from the booming tympani, horns, and basses, but chances aren’t looking so good.  The horns then switch from playing in the right speaker, to the left, and the flutes switch sides as well, ultimately exposing this “wind-storm” of audio mixing. In this recording, the listener may think that they have an idea of where and when an instrument will strike, but everything has a changing face. At this point, many of the instruments are being played with short, abrupt staccato techniques that also swell with powerful dynamic range. The violins suggest desperation as they play incredibly fast. Meanwhile, the rest of the orchestra goes up and down on a roller-coaster of dissonant and bombastic tension.

This piece of music contains stark and extreme changes and shifts in instrumentation. While there should be a definite brash quality, I felt like Seiji Ozawa’s version was much more contained. It didn’t have as many intense jumps in dynamic range, nor did it instill the fear like Bernstein’s or Georg Solti’s version of the piece.  An orchestra should blend while still maintaining clarity, but I felt that Ozawa’s instrumentation blended together too much, and some of the performance was lost as a result. Overall, comparing the two, Seiji Ozawa conducted a much less extreme, easier-to-listen-to account of The Rite of Spring. It seemed that the musicians were merely playing a piece of music, rather than becoming the music. This is what makes the piece of music so compelling in the first place. The listener stops thinking about individual instruments, and begins contemplating entire stories while getting lost in their mind. The piece is about chaos vs. order, and many times we’re not entirely sure where we’re being lead.