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Has Max Reger’s time come at last?

This weekend, cellist Iris van Eck opens her Chameleon Musicians series in Fort Lauderdale with music by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Max Reger.

The music includes two string trios: Beethoven’s Op. 9, No. 3, in C minor, and the Schubert B-flat, D. 471. Schumann’s powerful E-flat major Piano Quartet, Op. 47, is also on the program, and then there’s one of the three solo cello suites of Reger — in D minor, Op. 131c, No. 2. Van Eck is going to record all three of the solo Reger suites in the coming months, and I’ll be eager to hear them.


Reger, a tall, large man who died of a heart attack at just 43, was critically derided for decades because of his ornate, thick style, his long-windedness and his essentially dead-serious body of work. At first he sounds a lot like a Wagnerian Brahms, but without the tunes, and yet when I play some of the pieces from his Op. 82 collection, Aus Meinem Tagebuch, I find someone who’s more like the Schoenberg of Verklaerte Nacht.

Reger died in 1916, and some of the most radical music of the century had already been written, but this music sounds in many places like he would have been not far behind his colleagues, if he took longer to get there.

The most crucial composer for Reger was Bach, and much of what he wrote has a contrapuntal feel. Organists play his music a good deal, but it would be welcome to hear some more of his chamber music. He wrote a gargantuan amount of music in his short life — something like 1,000 pieces –  and I don’t know of any concerted effort right now for a serious exploration of his chamber music in performance, to say nothing of the rest of his work.

But it looks to me that interest in Reger is growing. I have heard his music more often in the past five years that I can remember before, including a flute, violin and viola trio at this year’s Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, and a lovely Reger arrangement of a Bach organ prelude for chamber orchestra in last year’s season of the Boca Raton Symphonia.

And one of Reger’s songs — the Maria Wiegenlied from his 60-song Op. 76 collection (it’s No. 52) — seems to be getting sung more frequently at Christmastime. It’s a lovely piece that makes good use of the folksong Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, amid a Wolf-like chromaticism that gives this tender song a heartfelt emotionalism that’s hard to resist.

It could be that Max Reger’s time has come at last. As the world’s performing organizations look in the libraries for good music from the Romantic era that they might have missed, Reger offers a very large selection to look through.

Here are two YouTube videos of music by Reger. The first is soprano Renee Fleming singing in Mainz in 2005 the Maria Wegenlied, and the second is a young Russian pianist named Igor Levit who won second prize in the 2005 Rubinstein Competition. In this performance, Levit does a masterful job of the fugue from Reger’s Telemann Variations, Op. 134.

Here’s Fleming:


And here’s the Levit performance:


Review: Lynn Phil does Rachmaninov, Mahler

BOCA RATON — The Third Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov has been celebrated — and feared by pianists — for its immense difficulties and its taxing length, even while listeners have kept it a beloved part of the canon for almost 100 years.

The Armenian pianist Sergei Babayan showed he was up to the challenge of the Rachmaninov on Saturday night with a fine performance of the work as the Lynn Philharmonia got its 16th season under way at the St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.

Appearing with the mostly conservatory student orchestra on the second half of a program led by conservatory dean Jon Robertson, Babayan demonstrated an ability to play the many thousands of notes Rachmaninov wrote and put them into a satisfying emotional context. Babayan gave the piece all the extravagance the score calls for, as well as the tenderness: he was heroic in most of the first movement and tender as he launched the main theme of the second.

The only thing that was missing for me was a certain amount of thematic clarity, especially in the first movement cadenza. One of the problems here is that the climax of this section is on a rather banal motif, and it’s supported by huge chords that climb up from the depths. Babayan pedaled through the supporting chords, which helps obscure the weakness of the writing somewhat, but it also sounds like the composer is trying to hide something.

Preferences vary on things like this, but I would rather hear all these sorts of passages played as clean as a whistle; it provides a much-needed astringency to an all-stops-out piece and helps balance it. That said, Babayan certainly gave an exciting rendition of this work, one that had the audience jumping to its feet with the last martial tattoo. The Lynn orchestra accompanied quite well, marred only by some out-of-tune winds in the opening bars that threw some odd harmonic lights onto the austerity of the chant-like opening melody.

Robertson showed admirable control of his orchestra in the Rachmaninov and throughout the concert. He has a very clear idea what he wants, and his charges give it to him.

This was crucial for the first half of the concert, which was composed of a sort of dog’s breakfast of three different pieces: an opera overture, a musical-tourism showpiece, and the emotional-heart movement of a gigantic post-Romantic symphony. But Robertson’s conceptions were precise enough that the audience was able to enter each very different sound world with ease.

The concert opened with Giuseppe Verdi’s overture to his opera La Forza del Destino, which began with those opening six unison hammerblows in the brass thankfully in tune, and played with crispness and power. The opening theme murmured along with the right amount of mystery, though the second theme was much too slow for my taste, if still effective and well-played. Here again, Robertson and the Philharmonia showed themselves well able to handle the different moods and tempi of this stop-and-start overture and make it work; I also appreciated that he was happy to let all of Verdi’s colors — which were critical to the composer’s conception of how opera was to be written — display themselves in their full splendor, as in the big brass section statement toward the end.

The first half closed with the Capriccio Espagnol of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose death 100 years ago is being observed this year in the classical world with increased performances of his music. This is tough music to bring across, too, because of its five-section structure. There was some nice solo violin and horn work in the Capriccio, and there was plenty of vigor in the Philharmonia’s reading.

But it seemed to lose momentum somewhere before the false ending that is followed by the big brass fanfare. There needs to be a sense of surprise and show-off throughout the work, and to me it sounded dutiful and pleasant rather than exotic and alluring.

The most involving performance came between the Verdi and the Rimsky-Korsakov: The celebrated Adagietto movement from the Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. From the almost inaudibly whispered opening bars to the exhausted ending, the Philharmonia’s strings and harp played this famous music with the only kind of naked, rapt emotionalism that can make it so moving (even amid the grinding of the Roberts Hall air-conditioning units in the very quiet moments). Ensemble was admirable throughout, which was demonstrated in particular by the seamlessness of the transition from violins to celli in picking up the chief melody.

It was the kind of reading that made you think: Now what about the rest of that piece? Would it overtax this group too much, or would it be worth trying? That’s not a decision for me, but that the thought could occur says good things about this conservatory band.

(The Lynn Philharmonia will repeat the program at 4 p.m. Sunday in Roberts Hall, St. Andrew’s School, which is off Jog Road south of Yamato Road. Tickets are $30. Call 561-237-9000 or visit www.lynn.edu)

Does the piano sonata still have something to say?

Thursday I played through two 20th-century piano sonatas, in part because I’m writing one of my own, and lest anyone get the wrong idea of what “played through” means, I should say at the outset that I mean hunt, peck, hack and fumble.

But the two sonatas in question — the Second Sonata (in A, Op. 21) of Karol Szymanowski, and the Ninth Sonata (in C, Op. 103) of Sergei Prokofiev — got me wondering about the notion of sonatas in general, how it is that works like these are heard by their audiences, and whether sonatas as defined like other long, initially sonata-form works such as string quartets and symphonies, can ever be written the same way again.

Both pieces are quite different in some respects; I played these two for a simple reason: the Szymanowski (pictured at left), written in 1911, was sitting on my piano, and the Prokofiev because I am reading Simon Morrison’s upcoming book on Prokofiev’s Soviet years, which devotes some space to the Ninth, which dates from 1947. Both are difficult, but the Szymanowski is much harder than the Prokofiev, at least for me (partly because of its almost unrelievedly thick texture).

The concept of a sonata as a multi-movement work in which a composer would pour out his or her deepest feelings or most daring ideas might have morphed a bit in the past few years. I don’t know of a great many contemporary piano sonatas (though Nikolai Kapustin is having some success with his jazzy pieces) that would be thought of in the same way as the Prokofiev sonatas, particularly the War Sonatas of the 1940s.

I’m reminded here of Vladimir Horowitz in conversation with David Dubal (this is from Evenings With Horowitz):

The Seventh and Eighth Sonatas I played at the Russian consulate during the war. Many musicians came to the consulate. They all wanted to hear the new sonatas. In the first rows were Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Toscanini, the young Bernstein, all the critics, and many American composers like Barber and Copland.

I’m not sure what sonatas would bring all the critics and top musicians to a recital today. These days, a new concerto, a new symphony or symphonic work, and especially a new opera: Those are the works that get the attention today,. and here we have something akin to what’s happened to movies in recent years. Spectacle appears to be more important today than substance (though if you can get spectacle and substance together, you’ve really got something).

The point is that the sonata as it first arrived in late Mozart and Haydn is a work of profundity and intimacy at the same time. You can thunder away all you wish, but it still comes down to one person with two hands at a piano. A certain kind of composer has always cherished the idea of a big sonata to sketch broader ideas and offer listeners a wide swath of emotional territory, and since the late 18th century and the rise of the piano itself the solo sonata has been a benchmark for compositional aspiration.

It could be that because the piano has largely been eclipsed as a home music-maker since the advent of recorded music, the idea of going to a piano recital and listening deeply and intently to a long, serious composition is not something audiences want to do anymore, with the exception of major, flashy names playing the most tried-and-true, familiar sonatas.

I still think there’s something to be said in this old form, just as there is in the novel and the short story, and really, any sort of established artistic endeavor. You don’t hear a whole lot these days about new piano sonatas, but I don’t think that means the form has exhausted itself.

I will always turn to a sonata when I want to investigate a composer’s deepest thoughts, and I think the same holds true for writing one. You want to give the player and your audience your freshest and best stuff; if it’s immediately entertaining as well, that’s marvelous. But not being immediately accessible shouldn’t keep new pieces from being written in this form, or prevent pianists from seeking them out.

Here’s Marc-Andre Hamelin in the Szymanowski Second Sonata (there are two subsequent videos):


And this is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prokofiev Ninth Sonata. I think this is the April 1951 first performance. Prokofiev was too ill to attend the recital, but listened in by telephone, Morrison says (there are two subsequent videos here, too):


Kapell’s Australian concerts

Listening this week to the new discs of the short-lived American pianist William Kapell, taken from broadcasts over the air in 1953 as he toured Australia. He was killed that October when his plane coming back from Down Under slammed into a mountain near San Francisco.

He was just 31 years old, and on the verge of what in all likelihood would have been a major career. Although American composers were fond of him for pursuing fresh repertoire, the selections on these two RCA Red Seal discs (called Kapell reDiscovered) essentially are canonical works; the newest piece on the programs is the Seventh Sonata of Prokofiev, written over the period 1939-42. The composer had died earlier in 1953, but still the piece is the closest thing to a contemporary composition.

What one hears on these records is a pianist with a strong personality, a musician at that phase of his career in which the music becomes an outgrowth of his own personal expression, as if he had composed it himself.

In the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, the first few promenade sections are intensely intimate, while in Bydlo, Kapell plays with brute force, snapping off the melody and its grinding accompaniment, and then does a marvelous fadeout as the ox-cart disappears into the distance, the dynamic level getting softer and softer until it is lost from view.

The Mussorgsky is on the first of this collection’s two discs, included with a gentle, clear-lined Bach A minor Suite (BWV 818) and the Rachmaninov Third Concerto, with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Sir Bernard Heinze. It’s a good performance of the Rachmaninov, too, with plenty of fireworks, fast fingers, and lyricism.

These performances were recorded off the air by a department store salesman named Roy Preston, who saved them onto acetate discs, and that creates two problems: One is that a short section of the Rachmaninov third movement was lost as the disc ran out of room and Preston had to turn it over.

The engineers here have patched it with an earlier recording of Kapell playing the same work, and the patch is quite obvious. They did the same thing in two other instances: the first movement of the Bach was not recorded, so a recital version was subbed, and the final bars of the Mussorgsky weren’t broadcast, so another recital version has been stitched in.

In all these cases, the difference in the sources can clearly be heard, and there’s been no attempt to go through and eliminate the large amount of surface noise and dynamic distortion present on the original acetate discs. Listening to it, especially in louder portions of the music, can be irritating, but it’s worth enduring these two difficulties to hear this pianist in his final appearances.

Still, I wouldn’t oppose a remastering — not to eliminate mistakes (there aren’t many), but to clear up the noise, which can be considerable.

The second of the two discs features the Prokofiev sonata, a late sonata by Mozart (in B-flat, K. 570), the Suite Bergamasque of Debussy and three works by Chopin: the Barcarolle, the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and the First Scherzo.

The scherzo sticks out for its blistering speed — if Chopin wants Presto, that’s what I’ll give him, Kapell seems to say. But it’s a little too fast, and it sounds rushed and muddy. The pulse of the piece gets lost in the opening bars, and the closing bars of the first section sound tacked on rather than a product of the same narrative line.

The Prokofiev sonata, on the other hand, is well-suited for Kapell; he knows how much to make of the composer’s mix of tunefulness and grotesquerie, and he makes a good case for the work The first movement is slightly on the galumphy side, but it has a nice impishness that translates well through the old sound technology.

Although the sound isn’t ideal on these Australian recordings, it’s wonderful that they were in good enough shape to offer a window into the last days of a fine pianist who clearly had talent and ambition to burn, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to realize it.

Here’s a video offered up on the Kapell Website of a 10-minute recital by the pianist, apparently for an old Omnibus program hosted by Alistair Cooke. Kapell plays Scarlatti (the E major sonata, L. 23), a favorite of Horowitz, who played it on his Moscow recital in 1986; Kapell makes a lot of the imitation-guitar chords he hears in the piece, while Horowitz’s performance is much more intimate. Both good performances, both with lots of personality.

Also on this video are the Chopin nocturne Kapell played in Australia, and a flashy arrangement of an Argentine folksong.


Leo Arnaud’s Olympics brand

Working today on the final version of a choral piece I need to finish in the next day or two, and then it’s on to two piano pieces I’ve promised to a performer that have been sitting on the shelf for a few weeks during all the chaos at work.

But while I take a break from all that, I’m going to point out, as I did during the last Olympic games, one of the minor heroes of its TV coverage.

And that would be the Frenchman Leo Arnaud (1904-1991), who was
one of the many behind-the-scenes orchestrators and music men during the golden age of Hollywood. He was nominated for an Oscar for the orchestration work he did on The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964 (here’s a bit from it):


But Arnaud’s lasting contribution to the world of music is a 30-second -or-so bit of a piece he wrote around 1958 for Felix Slatkin (father of Leonard), who was making a bunch of orchestral albums at the time that showed off flashy sounds that would come off well on the new stereo equipment then making its way into American homes. One of those pieces was called Bugler’s Dream, and we have known it since 1968 as the theme of the Olympics.

We used to play an arrangement of it in high school band, and there was a bit right after the fanfare that always reminded me of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, and I found it finally on YouTube in a video taken from TV during the 1996 Atlanta Games:


For me, you can’t get much better than this theme for an Olympics brand (the beauty part for me is the second time through, when the chord sequence goes from I-V to I-iii-vi). The second you hear it, you think of the Games, and that’s an interesting kind of immortality. It reminds me, too, of the unexpected direction lives can take.

Arnaud, after all, studied with Maurice Ravel and Vincent d’Indy, and you simply couldn’t have studied with more eminent musicians as French music student of the time. Then he had a career as a jazz trombonist in the 1920s, after France went mad for jazz when James Reese Europe played this hot new music for them in the days after the end of World War I. That’s an interesting mix, to say the least.

Arnaud was one of those many thousands of workers in the film industry who helped make movie magic for billions of people, which maybe makes the first thing you think is: OK, a commercial hack who got lucky. But commercial music isn’t easy to do. It takes a great deal of skill, and it’s not for nothing that the sound studios of Los Angeles needed to get first-rate people as movies became more and more intricate.

So I like to think of Leo Arnaud as one of the unsung professionals who brought the work in on time, under budget, tirelessly and probably with no more than the usual complaint. In other words, your basic working guy, though in a much more glamorous field.

I’d love to hear from anyone who worked with him or knew him; he must have gotten a good bit of satisfaction out of hearing his music become associated indelibly with these great world events of sport. You have to think it made him proud.