This is the third in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
Most artforms are essentially con-tricks. A painting is a fixed, two-dimensional image designed to give the illusion of three dimensions and movement in time. A novel constructs universes out of words by which a reader is immersed. And music is a fleeting and dynamic form that moves through time to evoke and provoke emotion. But sometimes, it seems to make time stand still as if the music itself can transfix us in sublime suspension.
String Quintet, the ‘cello’ quintet: 2. Adagio (D. 956, Op. posth. 163)
—Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austrian)
Mstislav Rostropovich with the Emmerson Quartet
Called the ‘cello’ quintet because Schubert adds an extra cello to the more conventional string quintet (2 violins, viola and cello). The whole work of 4 movements is one of Schubert’s most astonishing and poignant compositions (and probably in my top 10!). It was published posthumously because he completed it just two months before his desperately young death at 31. If ever a piece qualified for the claim to being sublime it is this second movement.
‘Soave sia il vento’ Trio from Act 1, Così Fan Tutte (K. 588)
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian)
Miah Persson, Angela Brower (soprano), Alessandro Corbelli (baritone), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Opera is not everybody’s cup of tea! One needs a gentle initiation to get what all the fuss is about. This is an ideal entry point, from one of Mozart’s best loved. Imagine harbour walls as an old man and two young sisters sing their gorgeous send-off to the women’s fiancés. They are sailing away to war. However, nothing is quite what it seems—the fiancés have devised a cruel trick with the old man’s help to test the sisters’ fidelity. Yet the music for this trio betrays not a hint of that deception. It’s a sincerely meant blessing on the soldiers and their journey. Let yourself be wafted by the orchestra’s lilting, breeze-like accompaniment—a perfect fit since the words mean ‘May the wind be gentle’.
Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)
—Arvo Pärt (1935 – , Estonian)
Vladimir Spivakov (violin), Sergej Bezrodny (piano) (1995, ECM)
The first years of Pärt’s life (pronounced ‘Pairt’) were spent living under Communist rule in the USSR, although he managed to get permission to leave with his family in the early 80s. He converted from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy in his late twenties and was fascinated by mediaeval choral music. He has a unique style, often termed minimalist, and this is one of his most well-known compositions (beloved of movie-makers looking to give their soundtrack added atmosphere). It is very simple, musically, with the violin’s stretched out melody accompanied by broken triads on the piano. Different patterns of notes are played and then inverted—thus literally portraying the piece’s title: mirror in mirror.
In Paradisum from Requiem (Op. 9, 1948)
—Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986, French)
Stephen Cleobury, King’s College Cambridge Choir, English Chamber Orchestra (2004)
It is probable that you will know Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (even if you can’t put a name to it). Less well known is that of Duruflé who had been Fauré’s student, yet I would argue that it’s a far richer and more profound work (as well as a lot more fun to sing!). This is the final movement of the mediaeval Latin requiem mass:
May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.
It is too brief, but in its brevity it conveys (to my mind at least) the closest thing in music to the setting sun streaming through stained glass windows. And here’s the conundrum. How do you convey eternity without going on forever? Duruflé’s genius merely suggests it with just one plucked harp string in the final bar. The whole Requiem closes with a suspension (F#7), itself suggesting more. But the effect is hauntingly magnified when a harp (or organ when there is no orchestra) plays a G# and leaves it hanging (a note which has no place in the chord). Yet it does not seem out of place. It merely points us beyond…
Piano Concerto no 2 in Fma, 2. Andante (Op. 102 1957)
—Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975, Russian)
Dmitri Shostakovich Jr (piano), Maxim Shostakovich (conductor), I Musici de Montreal
If Schubert is my 19th Century musical hero, Shostakovich is my 20th Century musical hero. He was a survivor of the insanity of Stalin’s 3-decades-long rule of the Soviet Union but the psychological cost was severe. In the midst of it all, though, he was able to create the most astonishing musical balm for a brutalised population. This middle movement of his 2nd piano concerto is a case in point—it seems to pull the melody of the ether like a string of feathers.
The concerto was written as a 19th birthday present for his son Maxim who gave its first performance. But this recording is a treat. Maxim’s son, Dmitri Jr, is in the hotseat as soloist, while he himself conducts. Three Shostakovich generations in one recording!
Symphony No 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Op. 36, 1976)
—Henryk Górecki (1933-2010, Polish)
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), David Zinman (conductor), London Sinfonietta (1992)
Few people outside the minute world of avant-garde composition had even heard of Górecki (pronounced GoRETski, with short ‘o’ as in box!) before this symphony became a CD sensation in 1992. Much of his music prior to this 1976 composition was obscure and what’s known in the trade as ‘difficult’. But this symphony is a revelation – and to date over a million recordings have been sold.
Like many symphonies, this has 3 movements, the first longer than the other two combined. Uniquely, however, all three are marked Lento (slow). That by itself gives a strong indication of the work’s tone and mood. Then, in contrast to almost all his 20thCentury composer contemporaries, Górecki manages to avoid all but the tamest dissonances throughout the symphony.
- Lento – Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile (sustained but lyrical peace)
- Lento e Largo – Tranquilissimo (slow and long – very peaceful)
- Lento – Cantabile semplice (simple, songlike/lyrical)
But the most notable feature is the fact that each movement includes a part for soprano soloist, because Górecki gathered an astonishing trio Polish of songs to set to music.
- Mary’s lament from a 15th Century Polish monastery. “Oh my son, beloved and chosen, share your wounds with your mother.”
- A young girl’s prayer to Mary that was found scratched onto the walls of a Gestapo prison cell at Zakopane. “Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always.”
- A song from the Silesian (southern Poland) uprisings of 1919-21, in which a mother sings “where has he gone, my dear young son?”
The theme of female suffering at man’s inhumanity is clear, and many have suggested meanings to the whole (including, a Holocaust memorial, the horrors of fascism and communism, the suffering of Poland over the centuries, a pacifist appeal, and so on). This is what the composer said:
Many of my family died in concentration camps. I had a grandfather who was in Dachau, an aunt in Auschwitz. You know how it is between Poles and Germans. But Bach was a German too—and Schubert, and Strauss. Everyone has his place on this little earth. That’s all behind me. So the Third Symphony is not about war; it’s not a Dies Irae; it’s a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.—Bernard Jacobson, A Polish Renaissance (1995)
Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.
This playlist will be updated each Friday with new music recommendations from Mark Meynell.