Monday, July 31, 2006

In The Moment, Part 1

The moment. Often when I listen to music, there comes a time in a piece in which for a brief moment, the whole piece seems to reveal itself – all of its beauty and majesty in what feels like just a few bars. Sometimes this lasts a few seconds, sometimes it lasts a few minutes – however long, you find yourself listening to these pieces waiting for that moment and often exit the moment feeling satisfied or even exhausted. Now that is a moment!

This article is all about that: a journey through what I consider to be some of the greatest of these moments in all of western classical music. As I look through my list, I know that I won’t be able to get through even a third of those I have identified, and I’m also aware that I’m going to miss many, but hopefully we have a good start.

So where to begin? Well, let’s start with a bit of music theory. The standard sonata form (symphonic form) is set up perfectly to create such a moment – in a portion of the form known as the recapitulation. A main theme is introduced, other themes follow, they are transformed and developed, and just about at the time that the piece is about to go off the rails, the composer brings back the primary theme in glorious form. The recapitulation.

And arguably the most powerful example of this can be found in the first movement of the 9th symphony of Beethoven. The movement begins quietly and darkly, introducing the syncopated rhythms of the strings before the eruption into the full orchestral main theme that we all know and love. For several minutes, additional themes are introduced and weave in and out, playing with each other in darkness and light. The strings move into a softer section right around 8 minutes into the movement, and a few seconds later all of a sudden they begin to descent while the orchestra swells suddenly into a storm and all time seems to stop. The entire piece seems to revolve around this moment. The recapitulation of all recapitulations. And for me, I have always felt that Beethoven’s entire life is captured in this single minute of music. All of his anger and all of his love – captured masterfully here. Let’s take a listen [BEETHOVEN EXCERPT]

Well, we could spend all day talking about all the “moments” in this single piece (I didn’t even touch the finale!), but, for now, I think it’s best to move on.

Sticking with the idea of recapitulations, this time we move to one of less majesty but of high beauty instead. Johannes Brahms was born 6 years after Beethoven passed away, but it is clear that he was heavily influenced by the romantic trend that Beethoven put into high gear. As an example leading to our second “moment”, the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto ends poetically with the piano floating in legato couplets on top of the orchestra, singing its way to the third movement. In Brahms’ own 2nd Piano Concerto, this idea is repeated in the first movement with the recapitulation of the gorgeous B flat theme. The piano and orchestra wind themselves down to complete silence and the piano takes over ascending from the lower registers to the higher, resting there inverse repeating upon itself. From within this atmosphere, the strings return, joining the piano in a brief duet worthy of angels. For a few seconds, the two dance with each other and with the main themes before the rest of the orchestra joins in and the piece continues on. Another brief moment of magic. [BRAHMS EXCERPT]

I’m going to stick with the pattern of piano concertos for my next choice. Before I reveal it, I’m going to put a few disclaimers out there. Number one, not all recordings of this piece contain this moment – the composer created an another (the original) version which is often the recorded choice. Number two, many argue that this “original” version is the better one anyway, including the composer himself (of whom a recording we are all fortunate to have available). Enough clues; got it yet? I’m speaking of the cadenza in the third piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff. As I mentioned, two versions of this cadenza were written, one fancifully racing through twisted versions of the main theme and the other finding its way to a thunderous restatement of the theme with as much energy as one can muster. The moment that I wish to identify, the version which I prefer, is the second, more powerful one, despite the preferences of the composer and many of the greatest pianists (Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Argerich). In fact, the odds are that if you purchase a recording, you will get the original, “faster”, and arguably more technically challenging version. There are, though, a few recordings including the other one, two of which that I can recommend are: Leif Ove Andsnes and Dmitris Sgouros (which he recorded when he was 14!). Recording notes follow this article.

So why do I prefer this second version to the first? Simply put, it’s the grandeur of it all. Starting off very dark and mysterious, the piano builds slowly into “waves” crashing upwards and downwards before it’s final descent culminating in two “A” octaves punctuating the opening section. And there we have a pause – a split second for a breath, setting up the massive chords to follow. I’ve always felt that this bigger, chorded cadenza, was more “Rachmaninoff-ian”, if there is such a thing, further demonstrating his Tchaikovsky influence and that “Russian Romantic” style – beauty combined with majesty and power.

All arguments aside, whether you prefer one cadenza to another, I maintain that the moments just before, the pause, and the chords themselves, are just another example of that magical moment in music.

Let’s move away from piano concertos but keep our focus on the recapitulation once again featuring a full orchestra. Gustav Holst wrote his “The Planets” suite to capture his views of the different planets (well, 7 of them at least), representing the gods that provided them their names as well as a gut feeling of what these planets must be like to behold. The piece is not assembled in the same order as the planets from the sun, and, instead of beginning with Mercury, Holst chooses to start with Mars, which he titles “Mars, the Bringer of War.” By the title alone, we know we’re in for an explosive 7:30, capturing the feeling of both war and the pain and desolation caused by it, much like the planet Mars itself might be.

The piece begins slowly, introducing the main 8-beat rhythmic pattern in 5/4 time with the snare drums and strings. The orchestra picks up the theme on top of that and we’re off to the races. Just over a minute into the piece, the orchestra swells and restates the theme with the brass section carrying the bulk of the load with the themes and rhythms. The piece moves into the second theme, a march with the horns and the strings playing a question and answer session with each other. All of a sudden, the piece dies down to nothing, and the cellos and snare drum take over, slowly adding other instruments to the mix. Wave after wave, the ocean swells until the final climax – another of those “brief pauses” before the brass and the entire orchestra join in together to crash down in unison over the repeated 8-beat pattern again before the theme returns. It truly is one of the great climaxes in all of western classical music. [HOLST EXCERPT]

At the risk of running really long, I realize that I’ll have to write a follow up article to include some of the many other moments that I wanted to highlight. However, I’ll stick with one more to conclude this article. For this, I’m going to select a moment which is of the “non-recapitulation” variety. Well, sort of. The second symphony by Sibelius is one of my favorite works. Most notably, the 4th movement contains so many thrills that I’m always left feeling exhausted by the end. The movement centers around a 6 note thematic pattern, D-E-F#, C#-D-E. The movement is structured in a fairly close to sonata mold – theme 1, theme 2, theme 3, development, recapitulation, theme 2, theme 3, coda. The moment which I will highlight occurs coming out of the third theme and beginning the development. This third theme is an arabesque hypnotic one, with woodwinds playing the theme over the bass strings pulsating up and down a scale. As the orchestra emerges out of this section, the strings begin an upward ascent to the upper registers. When they reach the zenith, a solo flute repeats the 6 note pattern and is quickly doubled. These 6 notes, and these 6 notes alone, floating through the string clouds, are as angels – assuring the listener that they are safe before they begin the torturous descent back to what eventually becomes the main recapitulation. Not much more to say without simply taking a listen. [SIBELIUS EXCERPT]

So there we have it. The first installment of amazing “moments” in classical music. I promise there are more on the way, including works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Verdi, Grieg, and even more by our friend Beethoven. As always, I welcome feedback and thanks for reading. Enjoy the moment!

Recommended recordings:
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Herbert Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophone)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major. Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic (London)
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. Leif Ove Andsnes, Berglund, Oslo Philharmonic (EMI Classics)
Holst – The Planets. James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophone)
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor)


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