hints, allegations and things left unsaid...
I’ve been listening to a lot of new music these days with including a great deal of contemporary western classical. The contemporary period is certainly not my favorite but two works have jolted me to take a notice:
A string quartet is not something that naturally comes to your mind on mentioning Debussy or Ravel. So when I came across a CD of their String Quartets, I was intrigued. Indeed these works turned out to be very different from any of the earlier works for the string quartet that I’ve heard before. The second movements of both Debussy’s G minor and Ravel’s F string quartets use rather elaborate pizzicato (a violin is usually played with a bow, but you can also play one by plucking at its strings, somewhat like you’d play a guitar and this is known in western classical parlance as ‘pizzicato’). Beethoven’s Op. 74 string quartet has managed to attract a nick name of “Harp” because of his extensive use of pizzicato in this quartet, but if second movements of these quartets is anything to go by, they can easily attract a nick name – ‘Burry your Bows’. Exquisite, must hear!
String Quartet is my favorite chamber ensemble. Musicians for centuries have poured in their skill and sublime expression into this one ensemble. I recently picked up a CD of Mendelssohn’s “Octet” under an impression that an Octet will be two string quartets playing in tandem. It didn’t quite turn out to be sum of two quartets. An Octet ensemble (as I learned) comprises of four violins, two violas, a cello and a double bass; the inclusion of the latter in place of another cello, sets it apart from two quartets. It also changes the dynamic of the music. While a lot of “quartet” element can be found lingering, on the whole an Octet sounds a little more like string section of an orchestra, with the intimacy you would expect from a small chamber ensemble, intact. Very little music exists for a String Octet. The closest I had heard was Beethoven’s wood-wind Octet; where he had suggested replacing woodwinds with strings, but I don’t think that a version ever materialized.
Mozart’s piano concertos represent some of the most beautiful works written in the classical era. I recently discovered another aspect of these concertos. A piano concerto comprises of parts for a full orchestral ensemble (similar to that of a symphony) and parts for a solo piano. The interplay of between the solo piano and orchestra is what makes a piano concerto so delightful. To make his piano concertos more accessible to the masses so as to allow them to be performed by small ensembles at family gatherings, Mozart reduced the scores of these concertos to a string quartet and piano. While I find these ‘simplified’ versions interesting, they are by no means a patch on the complete original. The woodwind sections in his concertos (besides the solo parts) are usually the most charming – you take them away and the concerto sounds a lot paler. What is interesting here is that as far as the composition of the ‘reduced’ ensemble is concerned, it is exactly the same as a piano quintet and yet the essence of the music that comes out is vastly different (clearly showing the composer’s intent of writing ‘reduced’ version of the concertos as opposed to composing for the piano quintet).
Also playing: Soundtrack of ‘The Pianist’ (a good compilation of Chopin’s Nocturnes, Polonaises, Waltzes), Beethoven’s late Piano Sonatas, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bruch’s violin concertos.
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