In this issue: Bach played by pianists Márta and György Kurtág; Caroline Shaw’s Passacaglia from Partita for Eight Voices performed by Roomful of Teeth; Handel: “Where shall I fly?” from Hercules, HWV 60 performed by Joyce DiDonato; Antonio Martín y Coll’s Folías de España (Diferencias sobre las folías) performed by Jordi Savall; “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” performed by Cécile McLorin Salvant; and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 10

Following on the heels of the music of Wagner and Debussy (the subject of our last “virtual tour” of great performances), here’s a more wide-ranging selection to enjoy. Think of today’s video selections less as a musical banquet than a tasting menu.

Bach: transcriptions by György Kurtág

Márta and György Kurtág, piano

György Kurtág, the greatest living Hungarian composer, arrived as a student at the Franz Liszt Academy (in then-Communist Hungary) at the same time as György Ligeti, and for a time, the two young composers and their wives shared a home together in Budapest. Mrs. Ligeti once told me that Kurtág and his wife, Márta, would spend the evenings at the piano, working through Mozart’s operas, with Kurtág singing all the male roles and Márta the female parts. Ligeti eventually fled Hungary, while the Kurtágs stayed on. György (who today is in his 90s; Márta died last fall) has written extraordinary music; his only opera (Fin de partie, based on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame) recently played at La Scala and is scheduled for its US premiere with the New York Philharmonic next season.

Of all of Kurtág’s works, the piano four-hand transcriptions are most special to me, short pieces he wrote for performance by himself and Márta and sweetly touching not only for the music itself but because they are emblematic of the lifelong partnership between these two remarkable people. This video should begin at the six-minute mark (if it doesn’t, please reset it), with Kurtág’s transcription of the opening movement of Bach’s early sacred cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s Time is the Very Best Time).

You may wonder about the upright piano. The Kurtágs’ preferred instrument for this music was one they called a piano con supersordino (piano with super mute), an upright model with the soft pedal permanently depressed and amplified, one that produces a very soft-grained tone that normally wouldn’t carry very far without amplification. The effect doesn’t come across perfectly on video, but in a performance hall, the sound is truly haunting.

Caroline Shaw: Passacaglia from Partita for Eight Voices

Roomful of Teeth

In 2013, I served as the chair of the nominating jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. When carrying out a task like this, you are asked to judge an enormous number of compositions over a very short period of time—in our case, three days. The process we developed was as follows: the music began; any jurist who had heard enough raised their hand; once two hands had been raised, we moved on to the next piece.

At this time, none of us had ever heard of Caroline Shaw (even some of her friends had no idea she was writing music, although she had something of a reputation as a freelance Baroque violinist and singer in and around New York). When this music from her Partita for Eight Voices began to play, we all sat motionless, instantly spellbound. Not a hand was raised. Days later, Caroline Shaw would go on to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize, making her the then-youngest (age 30) recipient in the honor’s history.

This is the final movement (but the first to be completed) of that larger work and it’s a showpiece for a catalogue of techniques ranging from straightforward vocal production to spoken parts to Inuit throat singing. Roomful of Teeth—an ensemble that began as a collection of friends, some very highly trained and others just very good singers—is one of today’s powerhouse new-music ensembles, and their singing here is an extraordinary display of balance, control, and dynamics.

Handel: “Where shall I fly?” from Hercules, HWV 60

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie, conductor

Handel’s Hercules is an oratorio, but unlike most examples of that genre at the time at which it was composed, one not based on a sacred subject. No huge success during the composer’s lifetime, it has received a great number of performances in modern times. While these works were not generally staged during the 18th century, this production, directed by Luc Bondy, comes from the Aix-en-Provence Festival and stars a young mezzo-soprano just then enjoying her first breakthroughs on the international scene—the brilliant, and much-loved, Joyce DiDonato.

In this scene, Dejanira, Hercules’ wife, realizes that—inadvertently and through an act of jealousy—she has been responsible for the murder of her husband. What results is this mad scene, one of the most unhinged moments in all of Handel’s work and something packed with chromaticism, wild key changes, and bravura coloratura outbursts. Given such electrifying intensity, you can clearly see why the world stood up and took notice of this singular artist.

Antonio Martín y Coll: Folías de España (Diferencias sobre las folías)

Jordi Savall, viola da gamba

Especially at Cal Performances, where we’ve become accustomed to frequent visits by the great Spanish-Catalan gambist, conductor, and musicologist, it’s easy to forget Jordi Savall’s skills as a virtuoso performer. Not so in this sensational display of speed, dexterity, technique, and artistry. (Here, Savall is joined by some of his favorite partners: Rolf Lislevand on Baroque guitar, Pedro Estevan on percussion, and Adela Gonzalez-Campa on castanets, with Savall’s daughter Arianna on harp and looking very much like her mother, the late Montserrat Figueras.)

“La Folía” is one of the most popular tunes in all of classical music—a simple melody over a ground bass in a sarabande, a stately Spanish dance in 3 characterized by an accent on the second beat—one that would be employed by composers ranging from Purcell and Tartini to Liszt and Rachmaninoff. The words simply mean “the madness” and it’s easy to see how this tune would have earned that description, given variations like these, by the Spanish Franciscan, composer, and musician Antonio Martín y Coll. It’s worth noting that during the Baroque period, it would have been expected that a performer be capable of improvising a set like this on the spot, and that the resulting music was usually not written down. If the number of extant variations on this theme is any marker, there are almost certainly thousands now lost to time.

“I Didn’t Know What Time it Was”

Cécile McLorin Salvant

A modern proponent of that style of jazz vocalism that dominated the middle part of the 20th century, producing such legends as Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, Cécile McLorin Salvant, only 30 years old and already a three-time Grammy winner, sings with a sense of freedom that belies the rhythmic complexity of her material. This song was made famous by Vaughan, but here, Salvant makes it her own. Pianist Aaron Diehl sets her up with a catchy but deceptively simple introduction (from what I can tell, playing on the second note of a sextuplet, rather than on the downbeat, for many measures) before giving us an incredibly impressive solo of his own. This performance is a perfect example of when your best option is to sit back and bask in the glow.

Theme from Shaft

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

We concluded our last set of videos and recordings with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. For a (complete!) change of pace, and a real musical treat, let’s end with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which, if not really an orchestra, is still a wonderful ensemble. There’s a wry wink and smile behind everything they touch, especially in this live festival performance, which captures the group’s mischievous sense of playfulness. On our musical tasting menu today, think of this as dessert!

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