No music captures the solemnity of Good Friday quite like St. Matthew Passion. As I once had occasion to tell the great Margaret Throsby on her radio program, one of the truly miraculous moments in that work—and in all music—comes when Jesus cries out, "Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?", and the Evangelist translates, "Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?" ["My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"]. I've always thought Bach's simple transposition of this replica up a fourth (to E-flat minor) to be an utter masterstroke. Here it is, with Peter Schreier as Evangelist and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus:
Recently saw the Met's new production of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles ("The Pearl Fishers"). My overriding reaction is, What sensuous, gorgeous music! I suppose I should have expected no less from the future author of Carmen.
The question of how much to vary the tempo in a set of classical variations—or in a variation movement—is a thorny one. My teachers were students of Serkin and Schnabel, so I was brought up to think twice before changing tempo to suit each variation. Doing so might well rob the power of such tempo changes as the author does indicate; or negate, from one variation to the next, the progression of note-values designed to feint an increase or decrease in speed (while in fact keeping a steady pulse and harmonic rhythm); or flatten the effect of other contrasts the composer may be concerned with, perhaps of articulation, dynamics, or register. A great example of these challenges is the bewitchingly elegant opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26: how to allow for a certain ebb and flow, for an elasticity in the music, but without changing tempo in an obvious way. (Incidentally, it is in the coda of this movement that Beethoven, for the very first time in his piano sonatas, explicitly marks senza sordino, i.e. to be played with damper pedal—a wonderful nugget courtesy of Barry Cooper and his invaluable new edition of the sonatas.) Here is this movement from my recent performance at the December Evenings Festival—was it successful in reconciling those conflicting goals?..
In preparing the F-minor Sonata of Brahms for performances this autumn, I wanted to refresh myself about what exactly Claudio Arrau had to say about it in his invaluable Conversations with Arrau. In discussing the great slow movement he says, among much else of interest:
Just finished re-reading the strange and striking Beethoven: His Spiritual Development by J. W. N. Sullivan, justly considered to be one of the most unusual books about music. One would like to quote from almost every page. Here’s from the last chapter:
The A-minor Rondo, K. 511—perhaps Mozart's greatest work for solo piano—is an iconic example of limitless expressive breadth achieved through the most limited means. I perform it here.