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Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Jean-Guihen Queyras & Alexander Melnikov

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102

The late 1840s saw Schumann take up “house music” in a big way. This does not mean that he began to DJ at raves, playing dance music with repetitive drum tracks and synthesized basslines. Rather, he had a productive period composing music specifically designed for the home market: Hausmusik. This was music meant to be appreciated by amateurs making music in their own homes, a demographic that had come to make up an increasing proportion of the German middle class during the Biedermeyer period (1815-1848) in which family life was celebrated and home activities like music-making cherished.

In Schumann’s Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano, the “popular” style of these pieces is evident in their simple A-B-A formal structure, their strongly profiled melodies, and their frequent use of drone tones in the bass.

The first piece is entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). It is likely meant to depict a drunken soldier like the one featured in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. Its heavy peasant swing conveys something of the soldier’s alcoholic swagger, or perhaps even stagger, but offers glimpses of his tipsy charm, as well.

The second piece is like a drowsy lullaby, or perhaps just something cozy to play in a room with plenty of coals on the fire and a hot bowl of punch at the ready. This is warm home life distilled into sound.

An aura of mystery seems to pervade the third piece, which opens with a sad waltz in the cello dogged by furtive interruptions in the piano. More lyrical material occupies the middle section, notable for the high register used in the cello and the double-stop writing in 6ths.

The fourth piece offers one of those bravely optimistic and celebratory anthems that one often finds in Schumann, alternating with more fretful expressive outpourings in its middle section.

The least ‘amateur’ of the set is the fifth piece that features copious scoops of double thirds in the piano part and a restless, roving cello line determined to sing out its line on its own terms.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major Op. 69

Beethoven may have made his name in music history for his restless moods and Dionysian fury but there is another side to him that his A major Sonata Op. 69 represents well. This is the Apollonian, classical-era Beethoven, the Beethoven content to live – for the space of four movements at least – in a Mozartean world of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

The opening theme of his first movement, for example, presented in the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, is symmetrically balanced around its opening note, the home note of A major. This solo entry of the cello and its follow-up phrase in the piano (ending in a short cadenza) is then succeeded by a solo entry in the piano and the same follow-up phrase in the cello (ending in a short cadenza). Moreover, the sonata’s second theme is a mirror image of the first, simply inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. While minor-mode turbulence intervenes from time to time, notably in the operatic outpourings of the development section, the piano and cello remain like best buddies in a road movie, always on the same page, never fighting with each other.

The 2nd movement scherzo sets out to see how much fun can be had with syncopation. At first peeking out and then hiding behind the pillars of each bar’s first beat, the two instruments find themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek (in 6ths) in the Trio’s two contrasting episodes.

The 3rd movement Adagio cantabile has puzzled many performers. Its extraordinary brevity, a mere 18 bars, barely gives Beethoven time to stretch out his lyrical limbs … and then it’s over. Glenn Gould has suggested a reason for this, a reason rooted in Beethoven’s emerging fascination with continuous form:

It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end … to make things all of a piece.

Nonetheless, Beethoven’s last movement takes off with a merry twinkle in its eye and a bustling accompaniment of steady 8th notes in the piano to keep every toe in the hall tapping in time. The opening theme of this sonata-form movement is derived from the first movement’s opening theme. Simply bursting with good humour and bonhomie, this movement manages to be both cute and coy by turns while constantly radiating a sunniness of disposition that even the mock-worry of its development section cannot efface.

 

Anton Webern
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 
11

Anton Webern presents us with among the most concentrated aesthetic experiences possible in music. Using the 12-tone technique of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in which complete statements of the 12 chromatic tones are presented as musical ideas, he writes works characterized by an astonishing density of musical thought. This is music of meticulous craftsmanship, music under a magnifying glass, in which seemingly small gestures take on great significance.

Webern’s Three Little Pieces Op. 11 are contained within a space of 9, 13 and 10 bars, respectively, and they take less than two minutes to perform. The outer movements are relatively slow and extremely soft (ranging between pp and ppp) while the second movement is loud and fast.

Catching the essence of music this fleeting requires concentrated listening. Only repeated hearings can really bring its minute details into focus. But one characteristic that might well be perceivable right away is how the piano and cello, like an old married couple, seem to complete each other’s musical thoughts.

When one goes up, the other goes down in response, creating a kind of symmetry in their dialogue.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata in G minor Op. 65

Chopin, a cello composer? Who knew? And yet the piano’s most famous composer actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, written between 1845 and 1846 for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).

In retrospect, however, the baritone range typical of the cello had always been a fertile ground for countermelody in Chopin’s piano music. Indeed some works, like the Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, or the Étude in C# minor Op. 25 No. 7, sound almost like transcriptions of works originally written for cello and piano. What most distinguishes this late sonata from those earlier “cello-like” works, however, is a new tendency towards increased chromaticism in the melodic line. Chopin’s sense of harmonic momentum is dizzyingly paced, especially in the first and last movements of this sonata.

Although Romantic in spirit, the sonata is written in the four-movement structure of the Classical era, comprising a sonata-form 1st movement, a 2nd movement scherzo, slow 3rd movement and rondo finale. The 1st movement’s opening theme might be described as a songful march, lyrical but inflected with pert dotted rhythms that add a slightly martial air to the melody’s unfolding. The second theme, by contrast, is a serene 10 notes (the first four on the same pitch) that exude a lyrical sense of repose, a repose not long held in this generally turbulent movement. The development is short, expanding on the rapturous potential of the 1st theme, in particular. Serious confrontation and drama occur only in the recapitulation, which draws much more vehemence from its material than the opening had done.

The 2nd movement scherzo is much lighter in texture and midway in mood between Mendelssohnian scamper and Brahmsian heft. Its lyrical trio is a nostalgic waltz to melt the heart of the crustiest old curmudgeon.

Lyricism of the simplest kind also prevails in the short 27-bar Largo third movement, but of a kind more vocal in its inspiration. Its widely spaced, nocturne- like piano accompaniment of eighth notes evokes a sense of calm that makes it the emotional pivot around which the whole sonata revolves.

The rondo finale reprises the martial inflections of the opening movement, but its dotted rhythms are now enlivened with a triplet energy reminiscent of the tarantella. In more lyrical sections the cello part is notable for the type of double- stop writing in 6ths one might expect in a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: The Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
Well-Tempered Clavier II
Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major BWV 876 (arr. Mozart)

In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.

The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier  is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.

The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.

Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.

 

Dmitri  Shostakovich
Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor Op. 144

Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.

His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.

The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.

Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade,  which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp  to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.

The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.

There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.

The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in E-flat major Op. 127

The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.

What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.

A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.

The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.

The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.

This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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