Friday, January 19, 2018

#ClassicsaDay #Opus1 Annotated List Week 3

I'm a regular contributor to the #ClassicsaDay Twitter feed. For January 2018, I decided to mark the first month of the new year with firsts. Each post features the first published work of a different composer.

Emphasis on the word "published," In some cases, the Opus 1 is the first mature work of the composer. Sometimes the work was written mid-career. A few are spurious, and a few were written quite late and simply assigned the Opus 1 designation.

Each work seems to have a story that's a little long for the typical tweet. So here they are. This is week two of the #ClassicsaDay #Opus1.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) - Scherzo for Orchestra, Op. 1

Shostakovich was a precocious musical talent and was taking advanced piano instruction at age nine. He wrote this work when he was thirteen years old. Shostakovich was enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatory at the time, and his progress was closely monitored by the director, Alexander Glazunov.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)- Harpsichord Concerto Op. 1 No. 1

The Opus 1 of J.C. Bach were hardly his first compositions. These keyboard concertos were published by Peter Welcker of London in 1763. Bach had become the music master to Queen Charlotte, and his music was much in demand. The concertos were written to either be performed on a harpsichord, or the new pianoforte that was just coming into fashion.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Piano Quartet No.1, Op. 1

Mendelssohn's first published work was a piano quartet. It was one of three, and he completed it in 1822. Mendelssohn was thirteen, but already an experienced composer. By 1822 he had written several chamber works, as well as eight of his twelve string symphonies.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) - Serenade for Strings, Op. 1

The first published work of Samuel Barber was a piece he completed when he was eighteen. The original version was for string quartet. In 1944, the work was republished with revisions, and also in a version for string orchestra. This is the version that's most frequently performed today.

Edward Elgar (1854-1934) - Romance for violin and piano, Opus 1

As a professional composer, Elgar was something of a late bloomer. He wrote his first published work in 1878. It was published It was published in 1885 when Elgar was thirty-one. The work is dedicated to Oswin Grainger, an amateur violinist. Goswin and Elgar played in the same community orchestra.

Annotated List Week 1
Annotated List Week 2

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Joseph Schuster String Quartets -- as good as Mozart's?

So just how good are these string quartets? Good enough to be attributed to Mozart. Joseph Schuster (1748-1812) wrote these six string quartets in 1780, on commission from Marquis Giuseppe Ximenes, an ardent amateur violinist. The Paduan-based Ximenes collected string quartets from all of the important composers of the day -- including Mozart.

The full story of how Schuster's Paduan quartets became mixed up with Mozart's Milanese quartets is told in the booklet. It's a convoluted tale, but fascinating reading. So, too, the story of how scholars eventually sorted out the authorship of these works.

And while the story adds interest, the music stands on its own merits. The quartets are a set of six, three-movement works. They do sound somewhat like Mozart, with the same light texture and inventiveness.

Because these were written for amateur musicians, the technical demands are light. Schuster makes up for that by making every note count. The ensemble may sound transparent, but motivically this is music of real substance.

The Quartetto Joseph Joachim performs with instruments of the period. They play in a simple, yet deliberate fashion. The end result is some finely nuanced performances that reward the attentive listener.

Joseph Schuster: String Quartets
Quondam Mozart, KV Anh. 210-213
Quartetto Joseph Joachim
Pan Classics PC 10379

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream -- Music for Greek Plays

"Beyond My Dream" brings some early music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to light -- and gives us a hint of what might have been.

George Gilbert Murray published what were considered to be the definitive English translations of ancient Greek plays. And he had very definite ideas of how they should be staged -- including music.

He was not happy with settings of his translations by Granville Bantock and Gustav Holst. Murray wanted something that more closely followed the rhythm and stress patterns of the original Greek.

Enter graduate student Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was recommended to Murray by his friend Herbert Fisher -- who was also Vaughan Williams' brother in law.

Murray and Vaughan Williams worked together, developing three plays for performance. Along the way, famed dancer Isadora Duncan became involved. Her innovative dance techniques further inspired the young composer.

Unfortunately, the productions fell through, and the plays were never produced. Some of Vaughan Williams' music was heard in a concert performance, then filed away. Only recently did conductor Alan Tongue find it again and prepared it for performance

Not all of the music has survived, but there's enough to give the listener a sense of what RVW could have done. The Bacchae has but one selection: "Thou immaculate on high." Two selections survive from "Electra." "Iphigenia in Taurus" has five pieces, including the overture.

This music isn't the pastoral English style Vaughan Williams would later perfect. There's an indefinite modal quality to these works as if the music continually oscillates between tonalities. The phrasing is irregular, matching the declamation of the text without following English speech patterns.

To me, some of the selections sounded like prototypes of later spiritual works, such as "Pilgrim's Progress." Still, in these works, RVW's style doesn't sound fully gelled. And that's a good thing. It gives this music an other-worldly quality.

Whether you're a fan of RVW's music or not, I think there's quite a bit here to enjoy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Beyond My Dream
Music for Greek Plays
Heather Lowe, mezzo-soprano, The Joyful Company of Singers; Britten Sinfonia; Alan Tongue, conductor
Albion Records ALBCD033