Friday, February 22, 2019

Cut that out!

Facebook and social media get lots of bad press these days, perhaps deservedly so, but I still find them invaluable means for generating interesting conversation. (TOP TIP: These interesting conversations will likely almost never involve politics, but your mileage may vary.) I have a variety of mostly Facebook-based relationships that can turn into comment threads featuring thousands of words - and none of them hateful, unless you count some of the things I say about Haydn. But, yes, they are mostly about music, with some sports thrown in for good measure. Or is music a sport anyway?

Anyway, about a year ago, a collaborative pianist colleague raised the interesting question about how a pianist should choose to "end" the first movement of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 when that's all that is being performed. This question actually comes up a lot - I've accompanied at least four different teenage violinists on this particular movement in competitions and/or recitals in the past year. In fact, one of those violinists lives in my house. Curiously, her big sister violinist never played "the Bruch," but it's often one of the first "grown-up" concertos students play.

Anyway, the first movement ends with a cadenza-like passage that mirrors the opening of the concerto; this final section concludes with the soloist playing a frenetic, three-octave G melodic minor scale that overshoots the top G to land on an A-flat. The purpose of the A-flat, aside from providing some over-the-top excitement, is that the orchestra uses it to set up a long-ish transitional passage which slowly calms down directly into the E-flat Major second movement. You can hear all of this, starting from 5:55 in this video. The problem spot is where the violin finishes at 6:57. The music doesn't finish "settling" until the 2nd movement begins at 7:40.

Here's what the score (with piano reduction) looks like from about 6:30 until the opening of mvt. 2.

In a full performance of the concerto, this is a lovely, organic touch, recalling the way Mendelssohn also directly links the first two movements of his most famous concerto. But, in the case of the Mendelssohn, it's very logical to play the short final tutti of the opening movement, which ends with a very clear and emphatic cadence in the "correct" key of E Minor. Mendelssohn's technique is to have a single bassoon hold on to one B from the cadence to initiate a transition; Bruch doesn't give us anything so easily tidied up.

The most obvious, and probably most common, solution is simply to play four bars of what Bruch wrote, except re-writing the end of the third bar to jump right ahead to a cadence in E-flat Major. Harmonically, it works fine, but it's unsatisfying because it's so odd to finish off a dramatic minor-key movement with what sounds like an afterthought of a conclusion in major. Hear for yourself (with my computer's orchestra applying the finishing touches for Heifetz et al.):

My Facebook collaborative pianist friend mentioned that she'd once heard a pianist re-write those four bars to cadence in G Minor (which requires a little work since the violinist's climactic A-flat is not IN the key of G Minor). I've since tried this a few times, including the last time I performed it with my daughter in an informal recital - but, after hearing the recording of that, I've decided it's too jarring, even though it ends in the right key. (It's made me appreciate more why composers, like Beethoven especially, feel the need to reiterate final cadences multiple times so that the ending really feels like an ending.) But here's what that might sound like with a "real" orchestra:

So we have two possibilities that are both unsatisfactory in different ways.* Again, the real problem is that Bruch's final violin swoop just isn't a good way for a soloist to finish a piece. (I suppose the Sibelius concerto does end in a way that's rather abrupt [start at 6:27], but Bruch's context is more traditional.)

One unconventional solution would be to double down on Bruch's abruptness and just have the violinist end the scale on G, with a big G Minor piano chord to go along. No one legit would ever approve of such a thing since it changes a note in the solo part, but it would be exciting! When I proposed this option on our Facebook thread, I also came up with the idea of "using" the big G Minor chord from Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" - the chord which signals that the Symphonie fantastique protagonist has just lost his head. Here's what that would sound like (to hear as a lone final chord, just pause before the Berlioz head-rolling effect comes in):

OR...if you really want to ramp up the drama, we could cut in the poignant clarinet memory of Berlioz's idée fixe before the final guillotine flourish.

As you can plainly see, I've now entered the territory I explored in my Haydn "Surprise" page from a few posts back (of course, I LOVE this territory), but I'll just restrict myself to a couple more "magic portal" options. The orchestral motif that introduces all of the excerpts above is also the theme Bruch uses to open the concerto, although curiously, I don't think the violinist ever plays it. It's always used by Bruch as a sort of "presentation" gesture. It can be defined as a repeating 3-note descending stepwise pattern with this rhythm:

My ears are sort of naturally conditioned to notice that this gesture appears in at least a couple of other famous places in music history. One of them I just noticed a couple of days ago when I was playing the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony for a conducting student. There's a passage early in the development where....well, take a listen:

This ending depends on the violinist ending on the G instead of A-flat. My final example would as well, except it sounds even better with the surprise transposed up a half-step to the violinist's A-flat. (Believe me, I've tried it both ways.) I think this would be the all-time best way to end the first movement of the Bruch concerto....though I'm not sure how this ending would end either.

Tomorrow, I'll share one more topic related to concerto cuts. Stay tuned!

{What's that, you want more Bruch blog content? OK, here you go.}


* Incidentally, it turns out that someone has self-published a composed "concert ending" which can be downloaded here. It basically uses more of Bruch's original transition, but then interpolates a few changes to finish up in G Minor. However, given that it would probably last about 30 seconds...and still sound like a strange way to end, it doesn't strike me as a useful solution, though I could see the benefit in going a little further than the 4-bar G Minor finish I demo'd above.

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