The Fifth Element #86 Page 2

Both Mahler and Anton Bruckner were Austrian. Both wrote symphonies that, to say the least, were not exemplars of Classical concision. However, to me, Bruckner's symphonies are one of the last outposts of Classical form, whereas for Mahler, formal structure had to give way to make room for Klezmer music, protracted intimations of eternity (or infinity), bundles of sticks, the kitchen sink, and the potato ricer.

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I have always preferred the symphonies of Mahler to those of Bruckner. In my more dismissive moments, I have tended to regard Bruckner's more-popular symphonies as "brass-plated stairways to heaven." So it was an overdue discovery for me when, a couple of years ago, when Meridian lent me one of their Control:15 music servers, I discovered loaded into it an arrestingly beautiful program of motets by Bruckner, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno led by Petr Fiala (gold CD or multichannel SACD/CD, MD&G 322 1422 or 922 1422). I eventually bought a copy. (The usual sources don't appear to offer sound bites, but HDtracks does sell CD-quality downloads, including individual tracks, with sound bites. Track 1, "Os Justi," is a great place to start.)

A motet is an early-music catchall term for a vocal setting of a short text, phrase, or even a single word, usually in Latin. The root of the word motet is mot (word), as in bon mot. Examples of motets that are most true to this definition are settings of the single word Alleluia, followed by Amen. The earliest surviving pieces called motets are from the 12th century, and the form flourished in the Renaissance. Later, Heinrich Schütz wrote many motets, and J.S. Bach wrote six; Mozart's famous Ave Verum Corpus is a motet. While motets are usually written for unaccompanied voices, many have accompaniment ranging from basso continuo to organ to brass choirs to orchestra.

The motet form has persisted, and not only among composers associated almost exclusively with vocal works, such as Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre; it has also long held a fascination for composers usually associated with symphonic works, such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and Bruckner. Twentieth-century symphonic composers who wrote motets include Elgar, Richard Strauss, and Vaughan Williams.

One can only speculate why Mahler—who, though not officially Bruckner's student, did attend his lectures—never wrote motets, not even as student exercises (as far as we know). Mahler did, however, arrange Bruckner's Symphony 3 for piano four hands (footnote 2). Mahler also carried on an extensive correspondence with motetist Richard Strauss. Perhaps Mahler just couldn't "stop down" his musical imagination to the point where he could write a vocal piece lasting three minutes—or less.

So here is a selection of 17 motets, mostly from the early and middle years of Bruckner's career, including settings of "Tantum Ergo" in five different keys—that make me think that Bruckner used the motet form as a test laboratory for his musical ideas. Sure enough, after Bruckner's setting of "Afferentur Regi" has gone on no more than 12 seconds, what do we hear but trombones—many trombones.

While these works do remind me of similar efforts by Rheinberger and even Brahms, I think that Bruckner had a distinctly personal way of blending the pre-existing traditions of Catholic devotional music (at one point, he considered becoming a priest) with the evolving impulses of Romantic style. The result is completely listenable. From time to time there are even glimmerings of the overarching, slightly dissonant, "pastel" vocal harmonies so beloved of Eric Whitacre. MD&G's sound is spacious and warm, and the singers, from the Czech Philharmonic Choir, are entirely at home in this music. Complete texts and translations, and worthwhile liner notes, are included. Highly recommended.

Hans Gál: Symphony 2
Hans Gál was born near Vienna in 1890, and died in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1987. Gál was a prodigy whose first faculty appointment came at age 19. His doctoral dissertation was on the compositional style of the young Beethoven. His piano teacher Richard Robert also taught George Szell, Rudolf Serkin, and Clara Haskil. His composition teacher Eusebius Mandyczewski had been a close friend of Brahms's. In his early career, Gál went from strength to strength, taking a post at the Vienna Conservatory once held by Anton Bruckner, and achieving critical and popular success in both opera and orchestral music. His admirers included Richard Strauss, Fritz Busch, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. One might well ask why Gál and his music are not better known. Unfortunately, that question almost answers itself.

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Gál was a Jew. In March 1933, he was dismissed from his position in Mainz, and publication or performance of his work was banned. In 1938, he fled to Britain, hoping eventually to reach America. However, after World War II began, the British, tone-deaf to the cruel irony, interned Gál as an "enemy alien" in 1940. Perhaps, had Gál made it to America, he might have found work in Hollywood—perhaps even as an extra in Casablanca (footnote 3).

Despite Gál's having reached physical safety once he was released from internment (ironically, side-by-side with German prisoners of war, some of whom were also Nazis), the 1940s took a grave toll on him. His mother and sister killed themselves rather than be deported to Auschwitz, and in England, Gál's youngest son killed himself at age 18.

Gál published more than 150 works, including four each of operas, string quartets, and symphonies. He became a respected teacher at the University of Edinburgh, and a founder of Edinburgh's famous festival. (See www.hansgal.com.)

As one might expect from his résumé, Gál's music grew out of the great Austro-German symphonic tradition represented by Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. While Gál did not embrace the innovations of Schînberg and his followers, he did develop his own style. Audible in his works are faint suggestions of such Nordic composers as Sibelius and Nielsen, along with hints of England: the pastoralism of Delius, the modernism of Walton. However, the strongest parallels are to, for lack of a better term, "generic Mahler," and to the entire Austro-German tradition.

Just as we speak of "historically informed" performances of music from the renaissance through the 19th century, perhaps we should say that Gál's music is "20th-century informed," but by no means extremely so. And that, I think, is the remainder of the explanation for Gál's until-recent obscurity. Gál wrote his Symphony 2 in 1943, and its Mahlerian Adagio was performed as a standalone work in 1947. The entire symphony has been performed only a handful of times; until recently, its last performance was in 1951. The postwar academic establishment was under the sway of 12-tone serialism and other forms of musical radicalism, and contemporary compositions based on the incremental development of 19th-century models had few champions among big-name or up-and-coming conductors.

Before receiving their recent recording of Symphony 2, I had never heard of Kenneth Woods or the Orchestra of the Swan, but I can't imagine any more committed advocates of the music of Hans Gál (CD, Avie AV2232). The Swan, which is based in Stratford-upon-Avon, plays like a major orchestra. Symphony 2's center of gravity is its Adagio, and it is a very worthwhile piece of music. Indeed, had this CD come out earlier, perhaps someone might have included it as an entry in my Fantasy Symphony Season reader write-in competition; as such, it would have been a contender for my list of the 12 best new-discovery CDs in the August 2012 issue. The disc's companion recording, of Schumann's Symphony 4, is also excellent. Great sound. Highly recommended.

Shostakovich and His Contemporaries
"Anxious circling and a kind of crippled polka . . ." is how David Fanning's liner notes characterize one of Dmitri Shostakovich's characteristic modes of expression. The completeness and insightfulness of those notes alone go a long way toward justifying the purchase price of Vol.III of the Pacifica Quartet's four-volume, eight-CD The Soviet Experience: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and His Contemporaries (Cedille CDR 90000 138). The series' unique selling proposition is that each two-CD set includes one quartet by a contemporary of Shostakovich's: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Schnittke, and the sole non-Russian, Weinberg (footnote 4). Each set retails for only $17.99; high-resolution downloads are available from www.cedillerecords.org.

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One of the fascinating things I learned from reading the series' liner notes (each volume's notes are by a different expert) is that Shostakovich intended to write 24 quartets, one in each of the major and minor keys. However, he didn't live long enough. (The fact that Quartet 1 is in C major should have been a hint, but that went right by me.) By the time he reached his last quartets, 14 and 15, the keys are rather remote (eg, F-sharp major, E-flat minor), and 12-tone rows have begun to appear (though not with Schönberg's strict formalism).

I think it's fair to say that Shostakovich's quartets are as knotty as Beethoven's, and even thornier. It turns out that Shostakovich suffered a long time with undiagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease); the works of his final decade often include subtle reminders of death, as well as farewells to the music he loved.

We are living in a Golden Age of string-quartet playing. No ensemble can make this music sound easy—and if they could, I think they'd be missing the point. The members of the Pacifica Quartet have clearly immersed themselves deeply in these works, and have given unusual thought and care to its presentation: The playing is as good as it gets, the sound is superb, each set's cover image is a different Soviet-era propaganda poster, and then those remarkably informative notes.

Vol.III may be best place to start, for the gravitas and symphonic scale of Weinberg's six-movement Quartet 6. But the entire series is a no-brainer, and a strong contender for "Records to Die For" honors, come February. Highly recommended.



Footnote 2: Had Bruckner been able to return the favor by transcribing Mahler's Symphony 3 for piano four-hands—Bruckner died the year that Mahler finished the first draft of the symphony—that really would have been something. Incidentally, the most financially successful of Bruckner's composition students was violinist Fritz Kreisler, who wrote not only his famous cadenzas for the Beethoven and Brahms concertos and dozens of encore pieces for violin and piano, but also a worthwhile string quartet and an operetta.

Footnote 3: In the famous scene in which "La Marseillaise" drowns out "The Watch on the Rhine," most of the singing extras were European refugees. Indeed, the director Otto Preminger once, tongue-in-cheek, chastised a group he heard speaking Hungarian: "Don't you guys know you are in Hollywood? Speak German."

Footnote 4: Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw, where his father was a violinist, conductor, and composer of music for the Yiddish theater. Weinberg, a pianist, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory, fled to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of war in 1939, and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. A little-known fact not mentioned in the liner notes is that Shostakovich's family name originally was Szostakowicz: his paternal grandfather was a Roman Catholic of Polish origin.

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georgehifi's picture
JUNO-106's picture

Well I for one am just happy to see a current CD player pictured on the Stereophile site!

It often seems as though the audiophile press would like to forget about the format but for many of us it still offers the best "bang for the buck".

The media catalog is vast! The prices are cheap! (especially used)

I know we are all supposed to be jumping on the HiRez download bandwagon right now, and I have a nice collection of SACDs, so HiRez is not new to me, but I have made my peace with Redbook(when played through a quality DAC).

volvic's picture

Well said JUNO-106, hi-rez downloads for many reasons have left me cold and still consider the good old CD a great medium for delivering music, can find it on ebay, Amazon, local used bookstores and CD stores for mere dollars these days. It is damn nice to see an affordable CD player mentioned.

Sayari's picture

CD is limited all the way... So a new player even at $200 is not a big deal. I will keep on spining vinyls or playin HiRez files on MSB DACs... Sound matters !

hollowman's picture

Why do some audiophiles/musiclovers want three-dimensional (hold-in-your-hand) formats like LP, CD or open-reel ... could it be Romance ... or something more anthropological ... err.... scientific...
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/
Humans live in the real/physical world so real/physical formats (and events, like Hi-Fi shows) give more pleasure and/or are more neuro-biologically memorable .... as noted in the SciAm article.
So put aside your iPad and HIFIMan DAP ....with those gazillion-hour playlists ... burn more calories exercising CDs and LPs off the forgotten top-shelf ... hope you're still in shape ... and, finally, get off this site, get out your Stereophile PRINT version ... go to your toilet, sit down, and enjoy!

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