Saturday, June 28, 2008

Variations without a Theme

The last time I heard Sandro Russo in recital, at St. Patrick's Church in San Francisco under the auspices of Noontime Concerts™, I suggested that his program had been "organized around the theme of the art of embellishment." I heard him again last night at San Francisco's Old First Church; and I would say that, while there was hardly a lack of embellishment, the emphasis did not seem to be as great. However, in spite of my habit (or, as I sometimes suggest, natural inclination) to find a unifying theme in last night's program, I suspect that any hypothesis I would pose would be a stretch. To some extent one might say that the recital was "about" listening to music through the medium of the solo piano (even when that music was not written for solo piano); but can we not the say the same about any piano recital?

Nevertheless, many of the works on the program seemed to demonstrate this approach from different points of view. Consider, for example, the second work on Russo's program, the "Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" by Franz Liszt. The title comes from the BWV 12 cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is the text of the opening chorus (preceded by an orchestra sinfonia). There is a slight irony in that the chorus is, itself, a chaconne of variations woven around a repeated "ground" bass passage; so, in some sense, Liszt's work could be called "variations on a set of variations." Bach, himself, would later "repurpose" this chaconne for the "Crucifixus" movement of his B minor mass (BWV 232), which was consistent with the mournful text of BWV 12. However, if Bach's music was meant for mediation on the "root tragedy" of Christian faith, Liszt's approach to "variation" is primarily one of bombast. Introverted grief is trumped by extroverted histrionics. Yet, there is also an extent to which these "variations" turn into a reflection on the entire cantata, or at least the beginning and the end; for, after it seems as if Liszt has exhausted everything he possibly can build on top of the poor little bass passage, he presents us with a coda based on the final chorale of the cantata, "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan," which blazes with as much glory as his divisions on the ground bass. From Bach's point of view, this chorale closes the meditation with the most frequently recurring theme of his faith: "Thy Will be Done." Liszt turns that precept into a celebration of God's will, if not a celebration of his view of himself as an instrument of God's will! This music, after all, precedes by many decades Liszt decision to take the cloth and become an abbé. Indeed, to the extent that we have a reasonable chronology of Liszt's works, he seems to have been working on these variations around the same time he was composing his "Totentanz" with equal flamboyance and throwing in orchestral accompaniment for good measure.

I find it interesting that it is possible (but probably not very likely) that Liszt could have been exposed to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" at the time he was working on both of these compositions. Whether it is a reflection on that "root tragedy" or on the horrors of the afterlife, Liszt's music may best be heard as a rebellion against the solemnity of church services that deprive the congregation of the essentially "emotional underbelly" of faith. Liszt's music lays siege to such churches and their rituals. Had he been aware of Whitman's words, he would have stormed through the doors to play his music first proclaiming:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

This, of course, is my own conception of what was going on in this particular piece of piano music. I also have no idea if Russo is familiar with Whitman's writing. Whether or not he knows Whitman's text, however, he certainly knows how to bring a "barbaric yawp" to his performance; and that is precisely what the performance of Liszt's approach to a humble little Bach cantata required!

Liszt was also represented on Russo's program by his "Réminiscences de Don Juan." This comes from an earlier period but also may best be viewed through that song-of-myself perspective, because, by the time he set to work on what, ostensibly, was an homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni, he had accumulated his own "catalog" of female conquests, which, while not quite as numerous as Leporello's list was still pretty impressive for any mere mortal. Thus, while this paraphrase of Mozart begins with the apparition of the Commendatore in the graveyard, once the music "gets down to business," it is all about seduction and sybaritic indulgence. The heart of the work is a set of variations (once again, highly flamboyant) on the Don's temptation of Zerlina in "Là ci darem la mano" (possibly in response to the set of variations composed by the then teenaged Frédéric Chopin); and the composition goes out with a bang (almost literally) with "Finch'han dal vino calda la testa," in which the Don describes in manic detail his plans for the party at which he plans to add Zerlina's name (and others) to Leporello's list. Needless to say, Liszt had no trouble at all capturing this manic element of the Don's character; and the good news was that Russo had no trouble in rendering the way Liszt had captured it.

While it might have been interesting to offer Chopin's "Là ci darem" variations to provide both context and comparison to Liszt's treatment, Russo chose to represent Chopin instead with his more mature Opus 22, the "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise." This provided an excellent contrast, since, while the Liszt compositions had well defined episodes to frame his yawps and indulgences, this particular coupling of two movements has a much better defined (and, for that matter, refined) architecture than just about anything Liszt ever wrote. Within that architecture embellishment is less for virtuosic display and more to, well, embellish a core structure through which the listener orients to the beginning, middle, and end of each movement. Perhaps the most important thing about such a core is that the end is there less to "go out with a bang," as I had put it for Liszt, but to close off what had begun; and one way to listen to these two movements is as two different perspectives on how one comes to closure. Now, when I last wrote about Russo, I questioned whether he was more interested in the rapidity of his embellishments than in their function; and I reinforced that question with my observations of how he had approached Joseph Haydn's "classical" approach to embellishment, in contrast to Liszt's "virtuosic" approach. Russo did not perform Chopin at this earlier recital; but last night's performance demonstrated how firmly Chopin holds that "middle ground" between Haydn and Liszt. The rapidity was still there (sometimes a bit more than I would have liked) but delivered with a lightness of touch that made it clear that the function of embellishing was being served; and, as a result, we learned more about listening to embellishment from this particular coupling of Chopin and Liszt than we would have learned had Russo opted for the "Là ci darem" variations.

Russo's program also provided an interesting exercise in listening to counterpoint, particularly as it was practiced by Bach. It began with the Largo movement from Bach's C major (BWV 529) organ trio sonata as transcribed by Samuil Evgenyevich Feinberg, a highly romanticized conception of Bach with little concern for an "authentic" sound and all concern for taking what was probably a relatively abstract exercise in counterpoint and endowing it with profound emotion. Feinberg's approach was complemented by the coupling of a prelude and fugues in G sharp minor by Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, a pupil of Piotr Tchaikovsky. Wikipedia has an excellent entry for Taneyev, which includes the following paragraph relevant to Russo's selection:

Taneyev's specialized field of study was theoretical counterpoint. He engrossed himself in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Giovanni Palestrina and Flemish masters such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez and Lassus. Eventually, he became one of the greatest of theoretical contrapuntists[26].

This particular prelude and fugue, Taneyev's Opus 29, was composed in 1910, which is a time when Feinberg's "spirit" of Bach was flourishing; but Taneyev chose to capture this spirit through an original composition that honored Bach's craft, rather than through a transcription of Bach's own music. With its post-romantic perspective, Taneyev's conception unfolds the underlying forms of The Well-Tempered Clavier with far more layers of embellishment (not to mention duration) than Bach would have found suitable; and I have to confess that my immediate reaction to Russo's performance was that I wanted to hear this work again, since I was pretty certain that I "got" only a modest portion of it on first exposure. As I have previously observed, listening to Bach's counterpoint it no easy matter; and, regardless of how "authentic" the instrument is, the best Bach performers are those who can guide us through the intricacies of Bach's logic and grammar. Taneyev offered up a new composition as an alternative guide; but that just means that performing this twentieth-century work confronts the same challenges as performing Bach! Thus, I would have to beg off trying to evaluate Russo's performance until I am more familiar with the work; but I deeply appreciate his exposing me to this alternative to approaching Bach through transcription.

Vladimir Leyetchkiss' recent transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Opus 17 suite for two pianos, on the other hand, is quite another matter. While I appreciate the desire of a solo pianist (like Russo) to play this music without having to seek out another pianist, the performance had too much of a technical display of how to compress four hands worth of notes into only two. More suitable was Russo's encore, which was Giovanni Sgambati's transcription of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo de Euridice. Within the history of transcriptions and paraphrases, this was probably the closest thing to a warhorse that Russo performed; and it offers the best possible way to demonstrate that neither a transcription nor a paraphrase need necessarily be all about flamboyance. Russo understood this, and his sensitivity endowed his program with a perfect sense of closure.

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