Pizz eerier?

The ten years I spent as a newspaper arts reporter carry many happy memories of interviewing world-leading artists and academics. My recollections of their contributions to classical music brim with unforgettable anecdotes, both heart-warming and disturbing. Being based in south east Asia, the latter usually referenced the dark days of China’s Cultural Revolution; the former lay in experiencing how approachable and unaffected the vast majority of international musicians are.

Another of my duties was to review concerts: these threw up a few performances that struck absolute magic and remain unforgettable; the majority were fine, but all too often wobbled in an under-rehearsed curtain-raiser; a few stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons, a pot that I won’t stir here.

But if I had to name one constant that permeated the hundreds of orchestral performances I reported on, it would be the tetchiness I felt when conductors mistreated the humble pizzicato. This is the technique used by stringed instrument players when they pluck the strings with their fingers, instead of drawing a bow across them to make them resonate. Naturally, composers clearly mark on their scores when they want this change in timbre to hit the audience’s ears. More often than not, however, you could see the string players happily plucking away, but conductors failed to suitably balance the resources in front of them so that we could actually hear the intended effect. This week, then, I’ll be airing a few examples of pizzicato music for you, loud and clear.

Playing pizzicato rather takes the body, if not the soul, out of the usual string sound. Does that result in an eerier, more ghostly effect? Well, it can do. Bartók wrote his Fourth String Quartet (8.557543-44) in 1928. Its five movements include two scherzos, the word implying a jocular mood that doesn’t really fit the music here. Bartók alters the strings’ usual tone in the first scherzo by getting them to play with mutes fitted onto the strings, muffling the sound, before adding splashes of pizzicato to this spooky sonority. The second scherzo is similarly far from playful; played pizzicato throughout, it’s disturbingly brittle.

You can compare playing with the bow (arco) and the pizzicato technique side by side in Alexander Arutiunian’s Sinfonietta for string orchestra (8.570324). Written by the Armenian pianist/composer in 1966, the third movement is marked Intermezzo – pizzicato.

The range of tonal effects when using pizzicato isn’t as limited as might at first appear. This can be heard in the wide range of dynamics and textures that Britten achieves in his First Cello Suite (8.553663). He wrote three such pieces, which were his way of responding to J. S. Bach’s cello suites. Written in 1964, the first of these has nine movements; at their centre is the Serenata: Allegretto (pizzicato).

If you’re impatient for me to get onto more familiar and tuneful ground with Johann Strauss II’s Pizzicato Polka, you’ll have to wait a little as I want to present a piece by a contemporary of Strauss, the French composer Émile Waldteufel (1837-1915). His Béobile – Pizzicato (8.223684) remains a bit of a mystery. Its origins are obscure; it’s thought to have been composed around 1908, but is rather atypical of his usual style. It survived in manuscript form in the BBC’s London Music Library; the BBC broadcast it several times before it was first commercially recorded. The title itself is puzzling; it can’t be found in Waldteufel’s official list of works, although there is another piece in there, titled Babiole (Trifle), described as ‘pizzicati’. Whatever, here it is; a trifle maybe, but quite an engaging one!

And so to Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka. But, to prolong the tease a little longer, maybe not the one you were expecting. Here’s an extract from his Neue Pizzicato-Polka, Op. 449 (8.554526) which he wrote for his brother Eduard, writing to him in 1892:

“I have sketched a new pizzicato-polka for your concerts in Hamburg. This time it is made slightly more interesting in accordance with current taste … It allows an affected manner of performance – this is the main thing in a pizzicato number. For where there is no ‘singing tone’, success can only lie in what I would describe as a coquettish performance, since neither piano nor forte offer sufficient variety in such an unusual piece.”

Finally, to Strauss’ original Pizzicato Polka … but with a difference. In the spirit of cultural evolution, rather than revolution, here’s the work played in an arrangement for Chinese orchestra (8.225847) in the hope that it’ll make you feel plucky for the rest of the day.

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