29 July 2016

Onute Narbutaite: A symphony and a melody from the Garden of Olives

Following on from the theme of discussing composers mentioned in BBC Music Magazine's article on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, I bring one of my favourite and arguably one of the most striking symphonies to come from the Baltic state.

Onute Narbutaite (1956*) is a fascinating and thought provoking composer. Her work is expansive and as she gets older shows no sign of slowing down or becoming tamer. Starting off with far more modest works which show high sensitivity and minute nuances, after the turn of the millennium her works seem to have taken on a larger grandeur and magnitude. As it stands, Narbutaite is the single most recorded Lithuanian composer, with possibly the exception of Ciurlionis, but this knowledge alone means it is no surprise she has a large international appeal. I first came across her works thanks to the large variety of recordings produced by Naxos and Finlandia, these CDs give a real taste the sheer spectrum of her work.

 Her fame and popularity as composer does have a small amount of fate on her side, as after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Western European nations took a massive interest in Baltic nations mostly to find other composers like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki. What this did was both positive and negative as fine composers like Peteris Vasks, Lepo Sumera, Toivo Tulev, Onute Narbutaite, Osvaldas Balakauskas, and Erkki-Sven Tuur to name a few gained a larger international appeal; it ultimately stereotyped the states as 'new simplicity' or 'deeply spiritual composers', which in some cases is true, but as my blog is intending to show is only a narrow stretch of the picture. Not to detract from the skill and prowess of Onute Narbutaite, but if it wasn't for this turn out of events she could have faced a life of obscurity outside of Lithuania; like many of her contemporaries suffer today.

One of her most famous and monumental works is her second symphony (2001). This two movement symphony is full of intensity, drama, and colour. The first and larger movement, titled 'symphony', has intense dramatic drive from the offset. The sheer power hits you and hits you hard. Like in Gorecki's second symphony the intensity is profound, but also beautiful and reassuring. The harmonic movements are unsettling and calming. The sensation is very similar to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, where it is familiar and tonal, travels a great distance, but is moving so quickly that the ride is bumpy and full of danger, due simply to the pace of movement. The orchestration is sublime throughout the first movement and always shows a composer with extremely fine craft and to end the opening movement on such an eerie calm is elegant.

The second movement, nicknamed the Melody in the Garden of Olives, shows a fantastic juxtaposition of extreme simplicity and jarring harmonic complexity in a truly magnificent interplay. After the flourish of strings they suddenly release, and almost like chanting monks, sing their melody. The melody circles on itself constantly with mild adjustments so it is never just exact repetition. The interjections from the rest of the orchestra come in the form of a distorted but shining chorale. The unresolved harmonies never quite finding any peace or release, and with every appearance almost feel like they grow stronger, almost vanquishing the melody. The very simple gesture is just genius. And for a composer, particularly after such large momentous gestures in the first movement, to cut the work down to such raw material is a brave and daring step. The result, almost ironically, is far more powerful than the first movement. The drama slowly unwinds and grows into something truly hypnotising, then suddenly, the trumpet appears. The moment it arrives is like something out of this world almost divine.

The work is unsurprisingly popular, it shows a composer with an extremely fine craft and also a composer who leaves musicologists and commentators like myself wondering how on earth do we define her? Throughout her work, she is full of romantic ideologies but never sounding regressive or conservative. She strives for a Mahlerian magnificence which never sounds like a pale imitation but actually something she is almost defining herself. It poses many fascinating questions indeed, many are quick to label her as 'neo-romantic' but this is very short sighted for many reasons. Firstly as neo-romanticism is Western Europe is used to define composer either started in a complex field then went romantic a la Penderecki, or alternatively are writing very romantic despite the national trend being heavily experimental. This view point doesn't really work for any nation from the former Soviet Union as the state sanctioned 'style' was for social realism, which ultimately translated into continuing romantic music without a break from it. This meant that many fine composers carried it on, and ultimately show us what romanticism in Western Europe could have been like with the outbreak of World War II. What this ultimately means for Onute Narbutaite, Lithuania never truly cut its ties with romanticism, meaning she is just a romantic composer. But what this needs to be understood as, is she is a twenty-first century romantic. Which she is without shame or worry, and ultimately makes her one of the striking composers alive today.

Listen to the glorious recording of her Symphony No. 2 here on Spotify!

23 July 2016

M. K. Ciurlionis - Lithuanian Demigod

As mentioned in my previous post, the next few posts will discuss composers featured in BBC Music Magazine's segment on the wonderful conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. I thought age order may be a wonderful way to  go, and also it means I finally get to discuss the composer most loved by Lithuanians: Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis.

M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) is in short the grandfather of Lithuanian music, at least in the sense of he empitomises the national or romantic ideal of Lithuanian composer. He is idolised, discussed, romanticised, and adored for many wonderful reasons. He is the idolised mostly for the sheer breadth and imagination he brought to nation in such a short space of his lifetime. His work as composer was not the only side to his creativity. He is also a defining feature of the artistic landscape of Lithuania too, his artworks have gained him more international acclaim and praise, and no Lithuanian till Jurgis Maciunas could even compete with such ideals of being the complete all expansive artist.

As can be seen above in Ciurlionis's Finale: Sonata of the Sea (1908), the artwork has many connections to impressionism, but somehow transcends or at least forces it to progress. The majestic nature of it is quite profound and striking. Now I am no art historian, but I know I like the art work of Ciurlionis and can see why it is idolised so much within Lithuania.

His musical prowess is equally expansive and elegant. His musical language is full of the luscious romantic flair and beauty we all have a soft spot for. The beginning of his music life he is very closely aligned to the likes of Sibelius, with a most but profound grandeur about it; this is particularly prevalent within his two large symphonic works Miske (1902) and Jura (1907). His later works show he is tapping into something far more chromatic or at least far more freely expressive, the chromaticism always feels more akin to Strauss and Wagner, never quite matching composers like Bartok or Honegger.

Many fine musicologists have looked deeply into the work of M.K. Ciurlionis, and rightly so he is a very fine composer and is seen as the cell from which Lithuanian music was able to spawn. But I fear he has been immensely romanticised in his brilliance. Yes, without question, he did wonders for Lithuania his work in setting folk tunes are truly valuable, like Kodaly and Bartok, Ciurlionis alongside his colleagues opened up the Lithuanian folk traditions to the world. His symphonic music is astounding, I have a great love of Miske in particular, such a striking piece of music indeed. But to imply he was one of the greatest symphonists is a bit premature. His orchestral music: Miske, Jura, De Profundis (1900), Kestutis and  his Symphony in D minor ( both finished by Jurgis Juozapaitis) - is ultimately limited, yes they are fine pieces but the craftsmanship is on par with those around him, and with figures like Mahler and Sibelius around, it is almost daft to compare.

Musicologists also like to point out that there are supposedly 'serialist' elements in his piano works. Often pointing to a motif of B,Bb,D (nicknamed the Webern row, due to its prevalent appearance in his opus 21, Konzert). This I have major concerns with, not because the work is fully chromatic, and actually elegantly taps into the full chromatic with ease. My issue with it stems from the fact it ultimately shows a misunderstanding of serialism. Having a motif does not imply anything, B, Bb (A#), and D could easily feature in B minor, and knowing J.S. Bach there is probably a fully chromatic fugue in B minor based on this; but we never suggest he is serialist, he has merely tapped into it. Part of the reasons why musicologist like this argument, is because it implies Ciurlionis beat Schoenberg and Webern to the punchline, which is a tad juvenile, but also misses the fact Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony beat them all. The reason I am arguing this is simply Ciurlionis's harmonic ability is really profound, especially from such a young man (he did die before he reached 40). The issue is a matter of function and purpose. The point of serialism ultimately is the intervallic devices and craft used and to ultimately put pitch at the dead centre of the music, almost controversially to suggest that the same intervallic patterns transposed would produce the exact same results as it is the relationships not the tone that matter. Within Ciurlionis, tone is ultimately everything, he is after all a musical child of impressionism, his nuance and colour within his orchestral works prove this without a doubt.

I want to round this off by trying to suggest Ciurlionis's brilliance is a different kind of brilliance than what is often considered. I want to simply highlight Chopin, as if he needs any real introduction. Looking at Chopin, ultimately gives us an interesting comparison to work with. Like Ciurlionis, he wasn't necessarily the very first composer, but is arguably the most famous and most loved. Like Ciurlionis, his piano works are immensely expansive and show a fine modest elegance. Like Ciurlionis, his symphonic works are far fewer in number, and in the history of their nation aren't the greatest contributors to symphonic music. Both are followed by a more significant composer when it comes to symphonic contribution, Szymanowski for Poland, and Gruodis for Lithuania. Ciurlionis, is ultimately a composer who in a world dominated by over the top grand orchestral gestures, like Chopin, managed to have a lasting impact on the musical world around them simply through piano music. Yes, my reduction is far too simplistic, but ultimately stands true, a composer who in those circumstances was able to open up a whole national theme, a whole national world of music by simply writing fantastic music for the piano should be far more celebrated than a composer who made loud noises with over 800 musicians. This is ultimately why M.K. Ciurlionis is so significant and should be loved worldwide. A man who was opening a whole world of harmonic potential, expanding the music of the piano, opening national folk music to the wider world, and creating such magnificent art needs celebrating. So until next time enjoy some of his wondrous piano music below.

15 July 2016

Eduardas Balsys: Violin Concerto No. 1

After a week flitting off to Yerevan, I am back in Europe, and back to blog. Today I saw a wonderful article by BBC Music Magazine on the wonderful conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. In it, a little side column shows four Lithuanian composers Mirga particularly appreciates, so my next four posts will discuss these figures! But today I need to discuss a composer I have been meaning to discuss for ages now, Eduardas Balsys. After weeks and weeks of having lessons in the room in academy dedicated to him, with his stern face staring at me and my compositions, I feel ashamed to not have mentioned him sooner. 

Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984) is an extremely significant figure in Lithuania as he, alongside Julius Juzeliunas, spearheaded Lithuanian music in the newly formed Soviet state; and came to particular prominence in the years of artistic resurgence after the passing of Joseph Stalin. This manifested itself in many different ways, either by being a popular proponent of 'Social Realism' with his works like 'March of Young Leninists' (1976). Or in the way he helped reopen explorations into modern musical languages like serial music or aleatoricism in works like 'Journey to Tilsit' (1980). He also constantly showed a desire to tap into local folklore and traditions like in his ballet 'Egle Queen of the Grass Snakes' (1960). Within all these areas Balsys managed to retain an elegance and sense of craft which is very apparent within his work, he is also an interesting example of how composers coped with the confines of Soviet censorship; as he was, like many others, able to sneak quite intense intellectual music under the radar of the regime. He also has the great accolade of being one of the most significant tutors within Lithuania's musical history, having taught many of Lithuania's leading composers today. 

Eduardas Balsys's violin concerto no. 1 (1954) is a curious work. In its three movements, the work manages to evoke many wonderful sensations, as well as starting off with moments of blaring dissonances. The work has many moments akin to Prokofiev, Bartok, but also many moments is very similar to Gustav Holst, which I think is probably the best composer to compare Balsys to for many reasons. Firstly the political influence in Holst's music meant he thrived on writing for amateurs and for the masses in his works for Brass Band, Wind Band, and Choir. Admittedly Balsys came about this less willingly, but the two came to similar results. On top of this, the two had a great desire to tap into folk traditions, with Holst reinvigorating British folk music and Balsys exploring his ancient folk melodies and themes. 

The first movement of Balsys's concerto is living and driving, starting with a bang, and profound procession, before the violinist goes for a run. The solo line is full of elegance, agility and grace. The soloist and orchestra fight it out for the entire movement, before eventually it seems the orchestra manage to subdue the soloist, even if only ever momentarily. 

The second movement starts with whispers and murmurs. The rolling chorale-like procession is lead by the clarinet which is mournful and sombre. The soloist enters with a beautifully melismatic line which rolls and sings so beautifully. Slow but surely the movement builds closer and closer to life, but still maintains a distinct sadness or nostalgia for something lost. 

The finale is a real showstopper. The music bounces and dances, the violinist navigates a really virtuosic solo line, but always holding importance over the orchestra. Despite being so virtuosic, the soloist lines always maintains a melodic nature, almost like how in the Brandenburg concerti how the soloists are melodic, but still extravagant. The nimble violin line keeps bouncing and the orchestra is equally agile throughout the movement. The rhythmic nuance is really elegant and the music is just damn fun to listen to. 

The concerto as a whole is marvelous, and it is a shock that it is not better known across the world. A part of me feels because Eduardas Balsys spent the majority of his working life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, he is simply ignored for being on the wrong side of the barrier. Too many composers are ignored and I feel gems like this show how nonsensical our ignorance of the music of former Soviet states is. 

Until next time, here is a glorious recording of Balsys's Violin Concerto No. 1 (1954)

2 July 2016

Blog post of pure reason

After a week of allowing ourselves to have a breather and a chance to gather ourselves after last week, I thought it'd be nice to return to a familiar name to this blog to at least bring a smile to everyone. This has turned into a brief return to Rytis Mazulis. I sincerely hope for those reading this blog need no introduction to the work of Rytis (if you do, I must find a way to be more blatant). 

For those unfamiliar with the composer, Rytis Mazulis is one of the most seminal composers of the Lithuanian landscape. He occupies a fascinating space which tapping into intense intellectual drive as well as a complete rejection of the past. His music draws influence from the likes of Conlon Nancarrow, as well as having the same intensive microtonal obsessions of James Tenney and Horatiu Radulescu. Many commentators on Rytis's work label him as a 'super-minimalist', I have two problems with this title; firstly it sounds like a terrible superhero name, secondly because Rytis's work is intensively concerned with canons surely if he is a minimalist, Ockegham must be a minimalist too! Even though Rytis's music does show some of the habits of other minimalists, but to place him in the same field as them is ultimately wrong. 

For those who spotted the terrible pun in the title of this post, today's featured work is Rytis's 'Clavier of Pure-Reason' (1993). The title of this seminal work is an amalgamation of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier and Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure-Reason. This profound obsession with philosophy and intellectualism is another characteristic which separates Mazulis from the American and British minimalists who saw minimalism as an opportunity to renounce intellect. 

The Clavier of Pure-Reason is a very straight forward work. A humble work for 24 pianos or one pianist and electronics, the work layers many canonic adaptations of an original idea and slowly introduces into an violent haze before slowly fading them out. The result is a wacky, almost hyperactive work full of an oddly sadistic sense of humour. The complexity of the layering and the use of the piano has many similarities to Conlon Nancarrow, but to suggest this is pastiche of him would be shortsighted. Ultimately the Clavier of Pure-Reason is like Conlon Nancarrow on a cocktail of speed and red bull, or alternatively like listening to J.S. Bach while overdosing on acid. It is oddly familiar but oddly terrifying. A truly unique work, from a magical composer. Enjoy!