Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mahler's Catholicism

During Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad 2010, music lovers had an opportunity to experience Gustav Mahler’s 8th symphony, nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the colossal forces it called for. Any performance of this music is always an "event".

The opening movement of the 8th symphony is a monumental setting of “Veni Creator Spiritus,” a hymn written in 809 by Raban Maur, a Benedictine monk and prelate living in Mainz, to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Listening to that stirring music has always prompted me to think of Mahler’s faith, his religious conviction. Mahler was Jewish by birth, and a great number of musical scholars have dismissed his conversion to Catholicism, accusing him of mere opportunism.

Composers reveal themselves most truthfully in their artistic creations, and an examination of many of Mahler’s symphonies and songs leads me to believe that the composer’s Catholic conversion as much more than just a baptism of convenience.

Before Beethoven, symphonies have been purely instrumental works. But ever since Beethoven, in his 9th symphony, introduces solo and choral voices in the famous “Ode to Joy” finale, composers have been following his example. Four out of nine of Mahler’s symphonies include sung texts, chosen with great care from prose and poetry that have great personal meaning for him. For Mahler, every text he chooses to set to music reflects his own belief and conviction. Significantly, the words he set to music invariably address death and resurrection, life in heaven, and man’s relationship to God.

A solo alto sings the hymn-like Urlicht (Primal Light) movement in Mahler’s second symphony, “I am of God and wish to return to God!” In the finale of that same work, subtitled “Resurrection”, the choir intones, “Oh believe, you were not born in vain, have not lived in vain, suffered in vain,” and ends with, “Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead, my heart, in an instant! What you have conquered will bear you to God.” Here is Mahler, the believer, going beyond the 19th century’s metaphysical view of redemption, declaring his religious conviction for the world to see.

In the composer’s third symphony, a chorus of angels rejoices, “That Peter was freed of sin,” and that, “Heavenly joy is a happy city. Heavenly joy knows no end. Heavenly joy was granted by Jesus to Peter and us for our eternal felicity.” Mahler continues in the same vein with his fourth symphony, which ends with a charming description of heavenly life through the eyes of a child.

Finally, one of Mahler’s many songs, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), describes a man, anxious and lying awake at night. He is searching his soul, and longing for peace. At the end, he prays the affirming and consoling words, “Lord! Lord over life and death, You are standing on guard, You, You are on guard at midnight!”

Certainly doesn’t sound to me like the voice of a cynical non-believer, who chooses to become a Catholic as a mere career move.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Hearing Ingrid Fliter's Beethoven Sonata Recording

When I was a little boy, I used to anxiously await every new recording by my musical heroes – Arthur Rubinstein, Glenn Gould and Herbert von Karajan. Since those golden times, the nature of the recording “industry” has greatly changed, and recording companies are much more reluctant to take chances, not only on repertoire, but on emerging artists as well. Image has now become the forefront of any recording company executive, and CD booklets often display glossy, carefully manipulated images of young musicians, making it look more like a fashion magazine than linear notes for the music being played.

I was delighted when EMI announced that pianist Ingrid Fliter had joined their roster of artists. Ever since winning second place at the 2000 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Ms. Fliter has busily performing all over the globe. Unlike a few of today’s young paragons of the keyboard, Ms. Fliter does not rely upon a vast publicity machine to further herself, and has always put her talent and artistry in the service of the music she is playing. Every recital I have heard her play has been illuminating.

So far, Ms. Fliter has recorded two Chopin albums for EMI – a debut album covering many of the composer’s different genres of music, as well as a recording of the complete Waltzes. Most recently, she has shared with us her thoughts on the sonatas of Beethoven. Her latest release includes performances of three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-two solo piano sonatas – Sonatas No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, ‘Pathétique’, No. 17 in D Minor, ‘Tempest’, and the justly famous No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’.

Recorded in the idyllic surroundings of Potton Hall in Suffolk, England, I was amazed at how beautifully the EMI engineers captured the sound of Ms. Fliter’s piano playing. Even the most fortissimo passages, of which there are many, did not sacrifice beauty in sound for the sake of brilliance.

In the Grande Sonata Pathétique, Ms. Fliter immediately commands our attention in the opening Grave section. Unlike some artists, she does not overdo the dotted rhythm. This is of course a matter of personal taste, but in this case it serves to give the music a sense of repose in the midst of high drama. In this sonata, as well as in the other two on the disc, Ms. Fliter has obviously scrupulously studied and observed Beethoven’s dynamic markings as well as the many tempi and performance indications. All of the sf, rf, fp, sfp markings, hallmarks of so much of Beethoven’s music, have been realized to perfection. With the fp markings, Ms. Fliter sometimes give the note, or the chord, a fraction of a second more time for the sound to die away, a very interesting thought.

I like her choice of tempo in the beautiful Adagio cantabile movement, giving the music a forward motion without compromising on highlighting the beauty of the sound. This can also be said of the Rondo-allegro, where she allows the quiet pathos of the drama to unfold.

In the Appassionata, the eerily quiet and deliberately colourless opening contrasts wonderfully and dramatically with the first outbursts of ascending chords at measure 17. And yes, she does keep the tempo very steady in these ascending chords. What strikes me about Ms. Fliter’s performance of this sonata is how she balances the beauty of the individual “moments” with the overall architecture of the piece, giving the impression that the performance is conceived in one enormous arch from beginning to end. The Andante con moto movement, sometimes treated as a mere intermezzo between the two outer movements, is carefully thought out and executed, and the transition between this and the final movement is realized to perfection.

In the third movement, Ms. Fliter even successfully managed the crescendo passages where Beethoven has written single note runs for just one hand, an extremely difficult assignment since the notes can easily become rough for the sake of an increase in volume. (This is akin to what Beethoven often does in his symphonies, giving fast tremolo passages to the high strings, instructing them to play a crescendo with no support from the woodwinds and the brass.) In the presto section, a cause for sin for many musicians, she maintains the drive and the forward motion of the music, without losing the sense of rhythm.

For me, the highlight of this recording is her simply magical account of the Tempest sonata. Hearing her performance of the composer’s middle period masterpiece really shows me how the music foreshadows that of Beethoven’s final compositions. In just the first nine measures of the opening movement, Beethoven lavished the music with five different tempo changes, and almost as many dynamic indications. Ms. Fliter observed the composer’s instructions, not in a slavish way, but to highlight the genius and beauty of the music.

Ms. Fliter’s performance captures my attention with the first chord of the Adagio movement. And even the tricky left hand triplet figures did not disturb the serenity and peacefulness she brings to the music. The return of the theme at measure 51, accompanied by rapid 32nd-note runs in the left hand, stunningly played by the artist, reminds me so much of the unbelievably beautiful return of the theme at measure 130 in the Arietta movement of the Op. 111 sonata. Ms. Fliter deftly manages this incredible thematic recapitulation in the present sonata.

At risk of exhausting the list of superlatives, I simply cannot think of a more beautifully realized rendition of the Allegretto movement of the Tempest sonata. The “magic movement” in this movement, for me, is when Beethoven takes us, ever-so-briefly, into E-flat major at measure 232. I am certain that Beethoven would have been pleased with how Ms. Fliter highlights this special moment in the music.

I do not know how many discs Ms. Fliter’s contract with EMI commits her to, and I do wish for further recordings of her Chopin performances. But after hearing her performances of the Beethoven sonatas on this present disc, I can only say, “More Beethoven please!”