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PROGRAM NOTES: BENJAMIN GROSVENOR

Robert Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18

In the autumn of 1838 Robert Schumann made a career decision. He would move from his native Leipzig to Vienna to find a publisher and a sympathetic public for his piano compositions. The public he hoped to attract in his year in the Austrian capital was a public of the fair sex, to whom he directed his “little rondo” Op. 18, “written for the ladies,” as he put it.

In keeping with the kind of gentle ears he was addressing, the title he chose was a term more associated with interior decorating than the taxonomy of musical forms. He called it Arabesque, perhaps in reference to the gently swirling curves and owing, intertwined lines of the piano texture in the work’s opening theme.

Structured in alternating sections of recurring refrain and contrasting episodes in an A-B-A-C-A pattern, the work begins with a section of whispering small phrase fragments in an utterly pure and chaste C Major. Two episodes of a more serious character in the minor mode o er alternative heart fodder for the heaving breast, the rst lled with longing, the second (surprise, surprise) a pert little march. Could Schumann ever the resist the urge to march?

This elegant little miniature concludes with a typically Schumannesque postlude, a wistful daydream that in its final phrase wakes up to remember the delicate motive of the work’s opening bar.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in B- at Major K. 333 “Linz

To the ears of modern audiences, given to admiring the thunderous eruptions
of a 9-foot grand projecting the well-upholstered scores of 19th-century pianist- composers, the crystalline perfection of Mozart’s almost minimalist keyboard writing might seem thin broth indeed. But then again, Mozart was not about making boom-box music for the powdered-wig set. He had little taste for sonic padding. He wrote only the notes necessary to outline his musical idea with clarity.

Which is not to say that he had no larger sound palette in mind, and no care for ‘effect’ when composing for the keyboard. His Sonata in B at K 333 shows clearly the in uence of the concerto style in the contrasts between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ textures of its rst movement, and more strikingly still in the way its last movement rondo stops dead in its tracks on a cadential 6-4 chord to set the stage for a full-on ‘soloist’ cadenza. This was not a work aimed at the market for home music-making or study. It was music for public performance, meant to display the composer’s skill, and above all his taste.

In this regard, the in uence of Mozart’s mentor, Johann Christian Bach, is evident in the composer’s borrowing from J. C. Bach’s Sonata in G Major Op. 17 No. 4 to create the 6-note descending scale figure used in both the first and second themes of the first movement of this sonata. The “London Bach” was a leading exponent of the style galant and elements of this style are apparent in the short balanced phrases of the rst movement’s themes, and in its pervasive use of coy little two-note sigh motives throughout. This movement is an elegant amalgam of textbook sonata-form construction, Italianate vocal melodies and sparkling keyboard figuration.

The sonata’s emotional centre of gravity is the second movement Andante cantabile, an operatic aria transferred to the keyboard idiom. Its mood of dignified lyrical reflection is enlivened by frequent decorations of the melodic line and unified by the recurrence of the repeated-note rhythmic motif: duh- duh-duh DAH. Its development section wades into deep waters indeed with its probing chromatic explorations.

A playful lightness of tone returns in the Allegretto grazioso nale, a toe-tapping sonata rondo with a blithely carefree, eminently whistleable opening refrain tune featuring a whimsical downward hop of a 7th. The concerto spirit pushes this movement to ever-greater heights of rhythmic animation that culminate in the keyboard-spanning exertions of its exuberant showpiece cadenza.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2

When German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) first compared Beethoven’s C# minor Sonata quasi una fantasia to the dreamy glimmerings of Lake Lucerne bathed in moonlight, he was blissfully unaware of what pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) would discover more than a century later. While examining a sketch in Beethoven’s own hand, Fischer realized that the famous triplets and polyrhythmic overlay of this sonata’s rst movement were taken directly from the scene in which Donna Anna’s father is killed by Don Giovanni in Mozart’s eponymous opera. What had passed for lunar luminescence was in fact commendatory commemoration.

Viewed in this new light, it would be easy to see the ‘tolling bell’ dotted rhythm of this movement as funereal, a sibling to the same rhythm in Beethoven’s Marcia funebre of his Sonata in A at, one opus number back. Or to Chopin’s own famous dotted-rhythm dirge, for that matter. And the lacerating dissonances of the soprano line as the movement develops become more plangent, as well.

Fortunately, the mood of suspended animation in grief that the first movement evokes is relieved by a consoling, dancelike Allegretto in the Major mode, a scherzo & trio emphatically grounded in the swaying body-rhythms of its insistent syncopations.

The pace picks up with a vengeance, of course, in the restorm nale, the only sonata-form movement in this work. If this music sounds scary, it’s meant to. This is Beethoven “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore,” a fist-clenching, pound-on-the-table protagonist, bent on musical violence. The agitato mood is unrelenting, what contrast there is being provided only by brief lapses into sullenness and simmering anger. At its climax, the movement explodes into a heaven-storming cadenza releasing lava ows of sonority across the entire keyboard.

Who could have foreseen that the rst movement’s quietly undulating broken chords would form the template for the raging fury of those in the finale?

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor Op. 19 “Fantasy”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the service done to posterity by composers who write their own program notes. Faced with an enigmatic two-movement work such as Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G# minor (1892-1897), the scribbling musicological drudge will no doubt rst listen with his eyes closed, con dent that the programmatic thread of a work labelled Fantasy must surely yield its secrets to the drifting imagination of the cultivated mind. Upon registering a mild to severe case of seasickness in the attempt, he will feel both relieved and validated to read the following words by the composer himself:

The second sonata reflects the in uence of the seashore. The development section is the dark agitation of the deep, deep ocean. The E Major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.

It would not be fake news to venture a guess at what the composer’s meaning is here: this sonata is about the sea. Its swells and undulations nd expression in the score’s many abrupt transitions between and pp, its choppy whitecaps in the ever-present rhythmic dislocations of accent between left and right hands, beginning in the very opening bars.

For the adventurous listener booking passage on the SS Scriabin, rhythmic uncertainty is a malaise for which no therapy has yet been invented. If the right hand sings out a fragrant melody in triplets, the left hand will surely keep company in groups of 4s or 5s, sometimes phrased across the bar line to generate added metrical dysphoria. Only when the wind dies down at nightfall, as described in the lusciously textured second theme of the first movement, can a regular metrical pulse reveal the glints of “caressing moonlight” of a melody glowing in the mid-range, enveloped by the most delicate tracery spun out above and below.

Those without their sea legs, however, would be advised to retreat imaginatively below decks for the following Presto, a swaying squall of a movement sure to revive memories of stomach upsets past.

Enrique Granados
Goyescas Op. 11
No. 1 Los Requiebros
No. 3 El Fandango de Candil

The extreme emotions portrayed in and provoked by the canvasses and etchings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) have attracted many admirers, but few as musically gifted as the Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados, whose Goyescas (1911) draw their inspiration from the works of an artist often described as “the last of the Old Masters and the first of the new.” The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates its intention to depict the amorous adventures of working-class swains, and the maids who have caught their eye, in the poorer neighbourhoods of Madrid.

The first piece in the set, Requiebros (flirtatious compliments) begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet gures and scurrying inner voices, the throwaway character of which gures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and- start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet o ered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the attering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.

El Fandango de Candil (the fandango by candlelight) presents a more advanced stage of the relationship, in which the couple are presented as dancing my candlelight to the infectious, ever-present rhythm of the fandango. The implication of the scene is that when the candle burn out, the dance continues by other means…

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie espagnole S. 254

Liszt’s unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures is on full display in his Rhapsodie espagnole completed in 1863, an exuberant tribute to the musical heritage of Spain. Everything about this piece bespeaks the dramatic stage presence he cultivated as his trademark.

The work opens with a series of de ant gestures that see bass rumblings sweep up to the high register, where the delicious strumming of celestial harps whet our appetite for what is to come. And what comes is the traditional Folies d’Espagne, a tune used by numerous composers, including Rachmaninov in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, this tune gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its gural texture extends over the entire range of the keyboard.

At the peak of its exuberance a childlike jota aragonesa, announced with an almost music-box-like innocence in the high register, interrupts the proceedings, its popular character frequently enriched with a drone tone in the mid-range. Then after a tender recitative and a sentimental pause for lyrical re ection Liszt unleashes his feverish imagination in a muscular apotheosis of his two themes that may cause chips of stucco to fall from the ceiling and threaten the structural integrity of the rafters.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: JAVIER PERIANES

Franz Schubert
Piano Sonata in A Major D 664

The salubrious effects of country air on the mind and spirits of the vacationing composer are well known. Witness Schubert’s wonderfully relaxed and lyrical Sonata in A Major D 664 composed in 1819 during a summer sojourn in Steyr, a riverside provincial town set amid the rolling hills of Upper Austria some hundred miles or so west of Vienna.

Lacking a minuet or scherzo, this three-movement work is the shortest of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. It comprises three moderately paced movements, each of which breathes an air of untroubled songfulness. The extremely wide range of the keyboard over which it is scored, however, shows it to be distinctly pianistic, rather than vocal, in conception.

The leisurely opening theme of the Allegro moderato first movement is a carefree melody that one could easily imagine being whistled on a woodland walk, unfolding innocently over a rich carpet of rolling left-hand harmonies that ripple over the space of several octaves. A slightly more insistent second theme arrives before long, marked by the dactylic rhythm (TAH-tuh-tuh, TAH-tuh-tuh) that Schubert favoured in so many of his works (a homage, perhaps, to the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). More muscular pianistic writing comes to the fore in the development, with its rising scales in octaves traded between the hands, but musical con ict and argument nd little place to grow in this most congenial of sonata movements. Worthy of note is the indication for both the exposition and development to be repeated, which by the early 19th century had become an archaism in the classical sonata.

Contrasting with the expansive lyricism of the first movement is a second movement Andante of the utmost discretion and intimacy, scored within a relatively small range around the middle of the keyboard. Motivated by a single rhythmic idea (a long note followed by four short notes), it proceeds within a narrow dynamic range from p to pp.

The closing Allegro is a sonata-form movement of considerable charm, with a modest and unassuming opening theme and a more high-profile second theme of an overtly dance-like character that occasionally breaks out into a full-on oom-pah-pah rhythm.

Franz Schubert
Drei Klavierstücke D 946

Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces” were likely composed in 1828, the last year of the composer’s life, and remained in manuscript until they appeared in a published edition in 1868. All three are structured in a rondo-like sequence of contrasting sections and in their wide range of moods and inventive pianistic textures they represent some of the Schubert’s most adventurous keyboard writing.

The first of the set opens in the gloomy key of E flat minor with an agitated rippling of triplets and a breathless melody that evokes the famous forest ride of the horseman who “rides so late through night and wind” in the composer’s Erlkönig ballad. Further developments take the theme into Major mode territory (as in much of Schubert) and eventually to a brashly self-confident chordal theme with the forthright directness of a Schumann march. The slower and more deliberate middle section features moments of drama that with their dazzling runs and swirling tremolos anticipate the improvisatory piano recitatives of Liszt.

The second piece opens with a drone-textured lullaby in a style that Brahms would later make his own. And in this regard, it is perhaps not irrelevant to mention that the editor of the 1868 edition of these pieces was no less than Johannes Brahms himself. The rst contrasting episode is conspiratorial in tone, with strange harmonic shifts and jabbing hemiola accents. The second is tinted in the minor mode, but with a penchant for rapturous melodic expansiveness.

The jubilant syncopations of the third piece in the set will have you wondering where the beat is. The exotic rhythms of Hungarian village music are obviously a point of reference here. The middle section begins grave and hymn-like until it, too, starts to feel a lilt in the loins that leads it back to the stomping rhythms of the village square.

Manuel De Falla
Homenaje “Le tombeau de Claude Debussy”

De Falla’s homenaje (homage) to Claude Debussy was written in 1920 as part of a collection of “tombeau” pieces to honour the great French composer, who died in 1918. Originally written for guitar, the composer later re-worked it for piano and in this piano version you can hear the timbre of the original guitar setting. This is especially noticeable in the vibrantly resonant open-string sounds of its spicy flamenco chords, and the keyboard imitation of the rasgueado fingernail- strumming technique typical of the flamenco performance style.

In the final bars, a quotation of the habanera theme from Debussy’s Soirée dans Grenade makes the dedication of the piece clear.

Claude Debussy
La soirée dans Grenade – La puerta del vino – La sérénade interrompue

Debussy’s Estampes (1903) present musical postcards of exotic locales that with the composer’s fine sense of nuance hint at the sounds local to the landscapes being musically visited. La soirée dans Grenade finds us late in the day in the southern Spanish city of Granada where the lilting rhythm of the habanera drifts indolently up through seven octaves of keyboard space to then simply hang in the air, interrupted only by the augmented melodic intervals of the Arab scale and the hazy strumming of a amenco guitar.

La puerta del vino (the wine gate) from Debussy’s second book of Preludes was inspired by an actual postcard sent to Debussy by Manuel De Falla depicting a gate at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It also puts the habanera rhythm in our ear, but here the succession of moods is much more … quixotic. The performance indication reads “with abrupt contrasts of extreme violence and passionate sweetness.” While signifiers of guitar strumming and Flamenco singing abound in the score, the harmonic vocabulary is a mix of Spanish rhythms and Debussy’s celebrated streams of parallel chords.

La sérénade interrompue (the interrupted serenade) is even more picturesque – and humorous – in its depiction of a young man attempting to serenade the object of his affections who is continually interrupted by nearby events. We hear him at first tuning up his instrument and then attempting to sing his plaintive lament, but in the end he simply gives up with a sigh.

Isaac Albéniz
El Albayzín from Iberia

The four books of Albéniz’s Iberia (1903-1908) stand at the summit of Spanish music for the piano, combining as they do the harmonic colouring and melodic inflections of traditional Spanish folk idioms with the scintillating textures of late-Romantic keyboard writing, heavily influenced by the pictorial tendencies of French impressionism.

A prominent focus of the collection is the flamenco tradition, an art that developed under gypsy influence in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia to embrace a passionate amalgam of guitar-playing, singing, wailing, dancing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping, the sonic echoes of which Albéniz transfers with great skill to the keyboard.

El Albayzín from the third book of Iberia is named after the gypsy quarter of Granada. It opens with a simple guitar-plucking texture, in the metrically ambiguous dance rhythm known as bulería, a 12-beat pattern that straddles the bar-line to create the impression of both duple and triple metrical stresses. After this base pattern of rhythmic pulse is laid down convincingly, a starkly simple flamenco vocal melody appears in unisons between the hands. These two elements drawn from the worlds of flamenco dance and song dominate the work, wrapped in increasingly voluptuous textures of piano sound.

Of this piece Debussy wrote: “Never before had music assumed such a multi- faceted and dazzlingly colourful guise. One closes one’s eyes and reels from so much imaginative bounty in music.”

Manuel De Falla
El Amor Brujo

Pantomima – El Aparecido – Danza del terror- El círculo mágico – A medianoche – Danza ritual del fuego

El amor brujo (1915) was a one-act stage work with songs, spoken passages and dancing written for the celebrated flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio (1887- 1979) and later arranged by the composer in a version for piano. The story is a dark one, centred on a common theme in gypsy folklore: the fear of a spirit that haunts the living after death.

In El amor brujo, (Love the Magician) a gypsy woman is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, a jealous and vengeful man who was unfaithful to her while alive and torments her as an aparecido (apparition) after his death. In an attempt to rid herself of his visitations, every night she dances the Danza del terror (dance of terror) but remains nevertheless under his spell. In her despair she seeks out ever more demonic rituals, including a círculo mágico (magic circle) and other rites of exorcism A medianoche (at midnight). The most evocatively ghostly of these is the Danza ritual del fuego (ritual fire dance), with its conspiratorial buzz-whisper of trills, flickering with menace, and its hypnotic whirl of ecstatic melodies.

De Falla’s music is deeply rooted in the throbbing drones, modal scales and brutally directs rhythms of the flamenco musical tradition, with obsessive repetition a principal element in its rhythmic design.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA

Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817

The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.

The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.

The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.

The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.

The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.

The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.

The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.

Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.

The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.

The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.

This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 1 in B flat major BWV 825

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) inserted right before the zinger finale, the gigue. Each dance is in binary (two-part) form, and performance tradition has it that each part will be played twice. When the galanteries consist of a matched pair of the same dance form, another tradition says that the first will be played again after the second to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern.

Bach’s partitas are much grander and more technically challenging than his English Suites and French Suites, with larger individual movements. The Partita No. 1 in B flat, published in 1726, is quite an upbeat affair, ranging in mood from cheerful and celebratory in the opening movements to ecstatic, almost manic, in its closing gigue. Even when the pace is slow, as in the sarabande, the tone remains distinctly bright and chipper.

A prelude is intended to introduce the listener to the key they will be hearing a lot of in the course of the work and Bach’s Praeludium does a bang-up job of this, feeling its way methodically through the various scale degrees of B flat until we think we know them as old friends. It blithely ignores its other task, however: to warm up the player’s hands with simple passagework. Anyone who has attempted the opening mordent on a 32nd note without first dipping his fingertips in a hot double espresso will know exactly what I mean.

The fireworks begin in earnest in the Allemande, a toccata-like romp of 16th-note chatter up and down the keyboard, often split between the hands. The following movement is not the usual ‘flowing’ French Courante but its more lively Italian cousin, the Corrente, with enough hops, leaps and swagger to almost classify it as a gigue.

The Sarabande is the longest movement in the work, clocking in at a robust 4-5 minutes of performance time. Normally a slow stately dance in triple meter with a distinct inclination to “sit” with some sense of ownership on the 2nd beat of the bar, this sarabande diverts our attention away from the slow pace of harmonic movement in the bass by means of pertly alive and florid elaboration in the treble.

As galanteries Bach puts in a brace of menuets (the fashionable French spelling of “minuet”). The first ticks along in a constant flow of 8th notes like a mechanical clock while the second is all soothing and sustained in a rhythmically even succession of quarter notes.

The Gigue is a breathless vehicle for the keyboardist’s acrobatic skill, as impressive to watch as it is to hear, with hand-crossings between the bass and treble in every bar to create an antiphonal ‘echo’ effect throughout.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major Op. 7

The title page of Beethoven’s fourth sonata, published in 1797, proclaims this work as a Grande Sonate, a title it richly deserves, not only for its technical demands and extravagant length (Beethoven’s longest sonata until the Hammerklavier Op. 106), but also for its panoramic range of expression. It comprises a sonata-form first movement churning with rhythmic bumps and dynamic surprises, a slow movement of extraordinary expressive grandeur, an unusually lyrical scherzo and a rondo finale with robust contrasts of tone and mood.

Noticeable right off the bat in the first movement is how melody-making takes a back seat to the manipulation of raw sound. The movement opens with a rhythmic tapping in the bass that morphs into a series of scale passages in contrary motion. Rude shocks interrupt the flow until a smoothly flowing second theme can establish a more lyrical train of thought. The development section mulls over the contrast between this lyrical strain and more disruptive impulses, especially Beethoven’s trademark elbow-jabs of syncopation, and the recapitulation is remarkable for an even more forthright assertion of the kind of “rough” texture that the piano is capable of providing with sufficient prodding.

The contrast between the fortissimo ending of the first movement and the piano opening of the second, marked Largo con gran espressione, is shockingly dramatic. This movement, too, makes use of dynamic contrasts but in a different way. It is the silences and pauses inserted into the opening theme, combined with its deep resonance in the lower registers of the keyboard, that give this movement its immense gravitas and extraordinary depth of feeling. Its middle section is full of harmonic tension and an almost operatic sense of drama.

The 3rd movement scherzo Allegro opens in a soothing vein, its gently playful phrases of irregular length toying with the listener’s expectations while still maintaining a distinctly lyrical tone. The Trio in the monstrous key of E flat minor is a real piece of work, murmuring away conspiratorially in a rippling shimmer of broken chords punctuated regularly by sharp ffp accents.

The rondo finale is by turns gracious and volcanic, an odd combination that Beethoven pulls off with aplomb. The opening theme is lovingly endowed with many little sigh motives and colourfully orchestrated in both the mid and high registers of the keyboard. Its main thematic foil in the movement is a stormy patch of heavy chords over a surging left-hand accompaniment of rolling broken chords in the minor mode. These two poles of musical emotion, the gracious and the grumbly—Sir András Schiff calls them “Beauty and the Beast”—somehow manage to be reconciled when the churning left-hand accompaniment figure turns to the major mode to walk the sonata home in its final cadencing gestures.

Frédéric Chopin
Waltz in A minor Op. 32 No. 2
Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2
Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

 In the early 19th century the growing popularity of the waltz occasioned a fair bit of pearl-clutching among the ‘better’ classes of European society, with old maiden aunts and celibate priests leading the scolding with choruses of “Get a room!” Viewed as scandalously risqué for its daring combination of embracing couples and whirling movements, it nevertheless climbed the social ladder until it emerged by the end of the century as the very symbol of elegance, sophistication and social refinement.

The waltz developed in the last half of the 18th century out of country dances from Austria and Southern Germany, and in the Romantic era was absorbed into the world of salon music for the well-heeled. While it maintained its essential musical characteristics—triple meter with one chord to the bar—various nuances congenial to the Romantic spirit were introduced.

Chopin’s cultivation of the “sad waltz,” the waltz in a minor key, was one of these. Another was the amount of melodic content he saw fit to give to the left hand. His wistful, almost moping Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 displays both of these qualities. It opens with a texture that sees the normal role of the hands reversed: it is the right hand playing the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern while the left sings out a mournful melody in the cello range tinged with pathos. While the major mode does appear to provide a bit of sunshine from time to time, the mood remains nostalgic, with more than a hint of melancholy.

The alternation of minor and major seems more evenly matched in the Waltz in F minor Op. 70 No. 2, a sad piece that stops just short of whimpering by maintaining a nobility of sentiment throughout, especially in its gracious use of melodic ornaments.

The Waltz in A flat Op. 42 is popularly known as “the two-four waltz,” on account of its intriguing matching of duple rhythm in the right hand with the traditional “bass-chord-chord” triplets of the waltz in the left. Register-spanning arabesques of keyboard effervescence make for some ear-tickling listening, interrupted from time to time by outbursts of passion that justify the grand manner of its apotheosis on the final page.

Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat Op. 39

The piano music of Carl Maria von Weber was a fashionable pillar of the repertoire in the first half of the 19th century and much played, both at public concerts and in the home. It suffered eclipse, however, with the rise to prominence of those piano composers of the following generation who were most influenced by it: Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn. It stands as a curious cross-breed of stern Beethovenian high-seriousness, polished salon charm, and the exotic wildness of German Romanticism that made Weber famous across Europe as the composer of the opera Der Freischütz (1821).

His Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat, begun in 1814 and completed in 1816, was obviously intended as a display vehicle for the composer’s considerable talents as a pianist. Weber had a huge mitt of a hand, which made the daredevil leaps and elephantine chords of the score much easier to manage for him than for mere mortals. Brilliance is the dominant characteristic of the keyboard writing in this sonata, combined with a preference for getting a full sound out of the instrument by dint of throbbing chords in the mid-range while the right hand frolicks high in the treble like a sportive child at a water park. The colourful, scintillating textures of Chopin can be heard on the horizon in this kind of keyboard writing.

More captivating still is Weber’s sheer delight in piano tone, allied to what his biographer John Warrack described as “the new expressive content he showed that music could hold.” This emphasis on the poetic is evident from the opening bar of the Piano Sonata No. 2: a hushed tremolo in the left hand intoning an infinitely soft quivering octave on A flat that allows a horn-like broken-chord melody to blossom above it. These tremolos are more than just incidental colouring. They recur with dramatic force in the tumultuous development section, both at its outset and its climactic conclusion, giving the impression of a sonata movement that is really aspiring to be a dramatic scene from one of Weber’s operas.

The second movement Andante is a theme and variations that begins with an unusual texture of sustained melody notes in the treble over a sparse harmonic accompaniment that vanishes as soon as it sounds, like a kind of musical ‘Snapchat’ message. The variations are as ingenious for their keyboard textures as for the musical ideas they develop.

The third movement is called a Minuetto but it is really an outrageously theatrical scherzo, full of off-beat rhythms and razz-ma-tazz, out-of-the-blue sound gags. The Trio is somewhat more lyrical, but hardly soothing, with its rapturous flights of passion in the right hand urged on by anxiously throbbing chords in the left.

The rondo finale, with its chromatically dribbly main theme, graciously disposed in neatly balanced phrases, is remarkable for the amount of important thematic play it gives to the left hand, although right-hand sparkle is certainly not lacking in the more display-oriented sections of this movement. What is unusual in such a showpiece is how Weber ends the work quietly, with a modest tapering off of the piano sound he loves so much.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: FLORIAN BOESCH AND MIAH PERSSON

The Songs of Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann was a composer steeped in literature. His compositions bear the dual imprint of both German musical and literary Romanticism. Literature was the family business, one might say, as his father, August Schumann, was both a publisher and a bookseller in Zwickau, Saxony, where the composer grew up. He began to write about the aesthetics of music when he was barely into his teens, at the same time as he was composing—an early indication of his future activity as a founding editor of Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, one of Germany’s most important music journals, still published today.

So it was natural that when writing his first songs as a teenager he should try his hand at writing poetry, as well. In Sehnsucht (Longing), written in 1827 to his own song text, is a typical product of German Romanticism, with its heightened awareness of the natural world as an echo chamber of the poet’s inner thoughts and emotions. Many of the features that would become standard in Schumann’s song settings were already in place in his early songs, including the “framing” of the sung text within a musically significant opening piano introduction and closing piano ‘postlude’.

Another early song, Gesanges Erwachen (Song’s awakening) of 1828 is a good example of how Schumann likes to wrap the voice in the attentive embrace of its keyboard companion. In this strophic song the piano also provides instrumental interludes between the verses, and even aspires to the status of a duet partner as it trades melodic phrases back and forth with the voice.

After composing a good dozen songs in the late 1820s it became obvious to Schumann that his real interest was the piano and he wrote for nothing else during the entire decade of the 1830s. The lyrical impulse of song, however, would remain a strong influence on him even during this time, evident in his use of music from his early songs in the piano sonatas Opp. 11 and 22 and in his quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte in his Fantasie Op. 17 for piano.

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The year 1840 marked Schumann’s so-called “Year of Song” (Liederjahr), in which he produced over 125 songs, more than half his total output.

The songs from his Liederkreis Op. 39 are based on the nature poems of Joseph von Eichendorff. Waldesgespräch (Forest dialogue) depicts a dramatic meeting between a hunter and the seductive forest spirit Lorelei, who bewitches men and brings them to an early death. The nonchalant postlude of this song, a reprise of the pleasant hunting music of the opening, has the childlike innocence of a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Mondnacht (Moonlit night) by contrast is pure scene painting, untroubled by any thoughts of danger or magical mischief. It depicts the earth and sky as joining together for a lover’s kiss, with the high and low registers of the keyboard as stand-ins for the natural elements. A different kind of scene painting is featured in Schöne Fremde (A beautiful foreign land), with its rapturous depiction in the piano accompaniment of both the wind rustling in the treetops and the poet’s blood coursing through his veins. The last song in this set, Frühlingsnacht (Spring night), features an even more feverish piano accompaniment to convey the unanimous opinion of all forest creatures large and small that the poet’s love life is on a definite upswing. The accompaniment in this song could easily be a stand-alone piano piece.

Dein Angesicht (Your face) explores darker territory, but in a typically Romantic way, combining the innocence of a dream with the fear of losing a loved one. The placid pulse of a gently swaying accompaniment leaves the drama of this text to be conveyed by unexpected changes in harmony.

The songs from the collection entitled Frauenliebe und Leben (A woman’s love and life) Op. 42 all deal with a woman’s emotional life. Concern has been expressed in modern critical circles that “the woman in these poems is really too much of a doormat” to her hero husband, but the tone may well have been an accurate description of the relationship Schumann had with his wife Clara, who was nine years his junior.

Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him) describes the ‘blindness’ of a woman in love. The halting pace and low register of the piano accompaniment imitates the tentative steps of a person lost in the darkness. Helft mir ihr Schwestern (Help me, O sisters) describes the excitement of a woman being dressed on her wedding day, with hints of a wedding march throughout that are made explicit in the piano postlude. Nun hast du mir (Now you have caused me my first pain) is an utter contrast in mood, a dramatic monologue of loss and despair as a woman faces burying her dead husband. The tragic chords of the piano provide scant support for the voice, left as isolated and alone in the musical texture as the woman pictured in text.

The songs of Schumann’s Op. 35 take us back to the world of nature. Erstes Grün (First green) is a delicate evocation of the coming of spring, unusual in its play of major and minor tonalities. Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend (Woodland longing) is an evocation of nostalgia for the woods, birds & streams of the poet’s homeland, richly conveyed in a rolling accompaniment in the low register that won this song the admiration of Brahms. Even deeper and richer in low piano tone is Stille Tränen (Silent tears) with its sustained melody and throbbing chordal accompaniment.

The voice stands in bold relief against the piano, however, in Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint (Heaven shed a tear) that sees a tear from heaven made into a pearl as symbolic of the love that a lover guards preciously inside. The tone of this song is noble, but with more than a touch of sentimentality. Piano and voice return to a duet texture in O ihr Herren (O you lords) with another accompaniment that could be a piano piece on its own. Herbstlied (Autumn song) expresses the contrasting emotions brought on by the change of seasons. It has a two-part structure: the passing of summer is regretted solemnly in the minor mode with a Bachian contrapuntal accompaniment until the mood brightens with major-mode thoughts of how winter will preserve everything till spring.

The first half of this recital ends with the great Biblical narrative of Belsatzar (Belshazzar), the Babylonian ruler whose jubilant feasting in celebration of his conquest of Jerusalem is interrupted by a the appearance of a mysterious message from the Almighty written on the wall. The score follows the narrated events of the tale with picturesque evocations of the flickering torches, the martial menace of the warriors in attendance, the sounds of riotous banqueting and the shock and awe of the story’s dramatic conclusion.

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The duet Liebesgram (Love’s sorrows) is a serious song, in keeping with its subject: death. The contrast between life and death is played out in the contrast between the major and minor mode, with the piano providing both serious contrapuntal and plangent harmonic comment on the text.

Exquisite delicacy characterizes Schneeglöcklein (Snow drop) which plays on the double sense of the name for the flower with the bell-shaped head that presages the coming of spring, here pictured as both a source of melting “snow drops” and the light tintinnabulation of a tinkling bell, charmingly portrayed in the high register of the piano. Equally cute is the naïve childlike enthusiasm for the arrival of spring in Er ist’s (Spring is here) with its twinkling accompaniment in the high register and imitation of the harp with—what else?–arpeggios.

Harplike sounds abound as well in the Goethe poems of Schumann’s Harfenspielerlieder. The tone of Wer sich der Einsamket ergibt (He who gives himself up to solitude) is serious, with a tortured melody and very little phrase repetition ranging widely over a harmonically restless accompaniment. More sober still is An die Türen will ich schleichen (I shall steal from door to door), which describes with great pathos the slow awkward gate of a wandering beggar.

Scholars are still puzzled by the text of Liebeslied (Love song), which may have been a secret coded message from Schumann to his wife Clara. This song is infinitely romantic, with the piano rapturously enveloping the voice’s voluptuous melody in a luxury of sympathetic swells of harmony and echoing its sighs. A more turbulent relationship is described in Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (A storm rages in the evening sky) that features a meteorological love affair between a cloud and the sun, with the piano vividly portraying the black cloud’s dark billowing presence. An eerie stillness returns in Nachtlied (Night song) with a virtually impassive melody drifting over a solemn succession of chords in the piano. Aufträge (Messages) is another nature song, this time on the theme of “Who will take this message to my love?” Will it be a wave, a bird, or the moon? The piano simply froths with excitement trying to find out.

Die Sennin (The cowgirl) features a gently yodelling melody that with its memorable leaps conveys the expansive feeling of being outdoors. The free and easy feel of this song’s opening is tempered by the bittersweet thought that “all things pass.” Sadness also tinges Meine Rose (My rose), a song which despite its comfortable ‘slow waltz’ pulse manages to rise to an almost operatic level of passion. Requiem is a reverent but passionate tribute to the life of German poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) with a translated text attributed to the 12th-century abbess Héloïse about her lover, the philosopher-poet Peter Abelard.

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Schumann’s songs take a darker turn near the end of his creative life. In Abendlied (Evening song) we hear both the hope for a better future in heaven and disturbing echoes of life on earth, especially in the piano’s pulsing triplet chords in 6/4 while the singer sings in 4/4. Even more unsettling is the storyline in Warnung (Warning): a bird is told to be silent lest by attracting the attention of the owl it become its prey, an obvious hint at the approach of death. Even more eerie is the way in which the piano and singer seem to inhabit separate worlds, the piano in the underworld, the voice a lonely presence still back on earth.

With Abschied von der Welt (Farewell to the world) we arrive at the last of Schumann’s compositions. The piano plays the role of the orchestra in a dramatic operatic recitative, punctuating the singer’s plangent pleas and its own heartbreaking commentary on the existential questions: What use is the time I have left? Who will remember me? More heartrending still is the very moving Gebet (Prayer), with its implacably stern piano chords and the singer’s increasingly urge pleas for help. It was shortly after completing this song that musical Romanticism’s most sensitive poet, Robert Schumann, attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was confined to an asylum, where he died three years later.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: HARRIET KRIJGH, CELLO & MAGDA AMARA, PIANO

Felix Mendelssohn
Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58

Mendelssohn’s second sonata for cello and piano reveals him as the Classical-Romantic hybrid that he was. An effortless practitioner of Classical etiquette in the construction of symmetrically balanced phrases, he eagerly took part in the Romantic age’s fascination with tonal colour and virtuoso keyboard writing.

This sonata was written in 1843 for Mendelssohn’s brother Paul, a cellist, and displays the four canonical movement types of Classical tradition: a sonata-form first movement allegro, a scherzo second movement, a lyrical slow movement and a sparkling finale overflowing with merriment and good spirits.

The first movement Allegro assai vivace opens with a upward-driving melody in the cello over a panting accompaniment of pulsing harmonies in the piano, a textural configuration that recalls the opening of the composer’s Italian Symphony. Immediately noticeable is how equal he makes the two instruments in the presentation of thematic material. Indeed, the piano is so empowered that its fondness for swirling textures arpeggios often threatens to upstage the lyrical outpourings of the cello. The minor mode in this sunny movement only really makes itself heard in the development section, and even there it is more of a tone colour than a seriously dramatic furrowing of the musical brow.

The pacing of the Allegretto scherzando second movement is a tad leisurely for a real, rollicking scherzo in the Beethoven mould. This movement is more in the way of an intermezzo, with a scherzo-like mischievounesss perceivable merely in the merry twinkling of its run-up grace-note ornaments. The tart opening section gives way to a contrasting middle sectionswith a melt-in-your-mouth melody given entirely to the cello, a melody eminently suitable for humming in the shower if ever there was one.

Utterly unforgettable in this sonata is the Adagio slow movement, that opens with luxuriant rolling arpeggios in the piano outlining a chorale-like melody such as Bach would have composed. And the association is not fortuitous. Mendelssohn was a devoted promoter of the Bach’s music and scholars have noticed unusual similarities between this slow movement and the aria “Es ist vollbracht” from the St. John Passion, as well as the closing sequence of the Fantasia from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. The cello’s operatic outpouring of emotion contrasts strikingly with the equanimity of the piano’s chorale-inspired piety and this creates the real drama in the movement as the cello gradually comes round to see things from the piano’s point of view.

The Molto allegro e vivace finale is somewhere between effervescently cheerful and manically hectic, like the finale of the composer’s G minor Piano Concerto, which it resembles. Singularly noticeable from the opening exchanges is the degree of cooperation between the two instruments that regularly complete each other’s thoughts. This is music for that part of the road movie in which the two buddies have got the cash and are making a joyous getaway

 

Robert Schumann
3 Romances Op. 94

This gentle trio of romances was composed in 1849 at the end of Schumann’s composing life, just before his mental health problems overwhelmed him to the point that he needed to be committed to an institution. They were originally published as pieces for oboe but have been adopted by violinists, as well as wind players, to enrich their respective repertoires. The affectionate tone of these pieces is in keeping with what appears to have been their initial purpose: they were composed in December and Schumann is said to have given them to his wife Clara as a Christmas present.

Here we have real red-meat Romanticism in the German mould, with a depth of piano sonority in the low register that at times suggests Brahms. Their melodic range is kept well within that of the singing voice and there is little to suggest instrumental writing in the succession of eminently singable 8ths and quarter notes that make up the melodic line.

Each romance is written in song form with an A-B-A structure, the contrasting B section being the quicker and more animated section in the first two romances, while the third has a slower, more lyrical middle section.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19

Rachmaninoff’s music for piano is renowned for its lushness of scoring, and the keyboard writing in this chamber work for cello and piano is every bit as opulent, its technical demands as challenging, its effects as spectacular, as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Despite having an additional instrument to write for, Rachmaninoff yielded nothing by way of concession to this sonorous exponent of the baritone range when writing the piano part of his Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge from the cello. One could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.

Written in 1901, around the same time as his famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is impressive in its expressive range and orchestral heft of sonority. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that would become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!

The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrying urgency reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism, like a lion showing his teeth.

The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.

The Allegro mosso finale in G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts, featuring a doggedly upbeat opening theme and a wistful anthem of a second theme, yielding at times to the type of fervent military march that often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

Program Notes: Benjamin Beilman, violin with Yekwon Sunwoo, piano

Franz Schubert

Sonata in A major D574

The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.

These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.

The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.

Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.

Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.

The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.

Leoš Janáček

Sonata for Violin & Piano

The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.

Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.

The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.

The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.

The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.

Béla Bartók

Sonata No. 2 Sz 76

While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.

The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.

The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.

The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.

Franz Schubert

Rondo in B minor D 895

The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”

Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.

The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.

The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.

The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.

Program Notes: Dover Quartet with Avi Avital

Sulkhan Tsintsadze

Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin (arr. Ohan Ben-Ari)

 The Soviets promoted the ideal of music rooted in the traditions of their native soil and in this regard it would be hard to find a composer more congenial to Soviet ideals than Sulkhan Tsintsadze, one of the leading composers of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Honoured throughout his long career for his prodigious output of operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works and film music, Tisintsadze is especially known in the West for his music for string quartet, above all his many sets of miniatures, each a picture of traditional life in the land of his birth.

Tsintsadze’s scores are remarkable for their wit and for the level of picturesqueness they achieve using just the standard effects of traditional string writing. In these short pieces, with their toe-tapping rhythms and melodies built up out of short repeated phrases, we hear the exotic sounds of traditional Georgian folk songs and imagine the colourful gestures of village dancing. Exhilarating glissandi convey the élan of the Georgian folk idiom and pizzicati the plucking of national stringed instruments.

In Shepherd’s Dance we hear a pastoral bagpipe drone in the cello and the fluty sound of the pan’s pipe in the strings higher up. The drone element is even more evident in the double-stops of the cello solo that opens the fighting song Satchidao, with its exotic Middle-Eastern-sounding scale pattern reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof.

We can imagine a group of whirling village dancers in the spiffy, almost breathless pace of Indi-mindi. Sentimental lyricism breaks out in Suliko, a waltz melody in sixths that wafts nostalgically over a light oom-pah-pah accompaniment. And it is in these lyrical moments that we hear Tsintsadze the film composer, writing for a popular audience.

 

Bedřich Smetana

Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life”

It was in 1874 that Smetana first began to hear high-pitched sounds and experience other auditory disturbances, unmistakable symptoms of the disorder known as tinnitus which within two years would take away his hearing entirely. It was thus as a completely deaf 52-year-old composer that he wrote his first string quartet in 1876, a string quartet with an autobiographical program referred to in its title: From my life.

The life he had led was marked by a string of personal misfortunes. Three of his four daughters had died in infancy and his wife had predeceased him, as well. And yet his professional life in music and his early experience of falling in love provided him with inspiring moments of real exaltation. These strongly personal emotions he expressed in a string quartet remarkable for its orchestral conception of sound and consequently its technical difficulty. In fact, it was initially judged to be unplayable, due to his frequent use of multiple-stops.

Despite its programmatic themes, this work displays the standard four-movement pattern of the traditional string quartet, with a sonata-form first movement, followed by a scherzo, a lyrical slow movement and a rousing finale.

The first movement opens with a depiction of the composer’s youth, a troubled period in his life when he was afflicted with powerful yearnings, expressed by the strongly attacked motives of the solo viola over hushed tremolos in the other instruments. The falling interval with which each motive abruptly ends stands emblematic of the struggles he will face and the misfortunes that will befall him. But present in this movement is also a potent force of optimism, expressed by the second theme in a placidly peaceful G major. Despite a development section full of fretting over the first theme, it is this more peaceful second theme that will dominate the recapitulation, balancing out in a quiet ending the worrying tone of the movement’s opening theme.

The dancelike character of the second movement scherzo is evident in its tempo marking: Allegro moderato a la Polka. Smetana confesses that he was fond of dancing, and composed a great deal of dance music in his youth. The tone here is unpretentiously upbeat, full of hops, skips and boisterous good spirits. And really now, is there anything more joyous than the sugary dominant 9th chord that opens this movement? The middle section trio, by contrast, with its soothing off-beat chords and Palm-Court-like insouciance, is total suavity from beginning to end – a tip of the hat, Smetana says, to the aristocratic circles he frequented as a young buck.

The slow movement Largo sostenuto pays tribute to the composer’s childhood sweetheart, Kateřina Kolářová, whom he married in 1847, and who died of tuberculosis ten years later. Beginning with a cello soliloquy that soulfully repeats the falling intervals of the quartet’s opening, this movement develops as a series of variations on two themes, sometimes lovingly enveloped in a nurturing accompaniment of adoring countermelodies, sometimes throbbing with drama and youthful ardour.

The Vivace final movement is indelibly stamped with the effervescence and natural vitality of Czech folk music, presenting passages of a strongly marked – even punchy– rhythmic character alternating with solo “lead breaks” by individual instruments. The music suddenly stops, however, as ominous tremolos prepare the way for a long-held ultra-high E in the first violin, representing the abnormal sound that Smetana began to hear in his ear as his hearing slowly disappeared. The movement then lurches slowly to its conclusion, recalling memories of themes past, until it fades into the very silence that marked the composer’s final years.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Chaconne from Partita in D minor for Violin BWV   1004

The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges that it presents to the performer and for the monumental brilliance of its formal architecture.

At its core is a 4-bar pattern of chords, stated at the outset, that serve as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s 4-bar thematic pattern comes in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar. There follow 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design. The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon.

Avi Avital stands in a long line of transcribers of this work. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn arranged the work for violin and piano, while Busoni created the canonical version for piano solo that Benjamin Grosvenor played at his VRS concert in 2015. Not to mention, of course, the version that Andres Segovia created for guitar.

Each instrument or combination of instruments offers new possibilities for clothing the elegant structure of this work in new sonic garb. Some, like Busoni, have sought to expand its sound palette to match that of the organ. Brahms, on the other hand, conceived of its musical riches as capable of being contained within the small compass of the pianist’s left hand alone. It will be of great interest to see where Avi Avital takes this celebrated piece, sonically and interpretively, on the mandolin.

 

David Bruce

Cymbeline for String Quartet and Mandolin

David Bruce was born in Connecticut in 1970 but grew up in England where he received his academic musical training, graduating in 1999 with a Ph.D. in composition from King’s College London under Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He has received numerous commissions from Carnegie Hall and was composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House from 2012 to 2013. His latest opera, Nothing, often described as “a modern-day Lord of the Flies,” was premiered at Glyndebourne in February 2016 and will be performed in Aarhus, Denmark this year.

There is a directness of appeal in Bruce’s music that derives from the intriguing strangeness of the simple musical textures he creates, textures featuring exotic scale modes, engaging rhythms, wind-chime-like timbres, and above all a magical connection to intimate human emotion.

“Cymbeline” is an old Celtic word that refers to the Lord of the Sun. The composer’s first impulse in creating this work was an association that he intuited between the colour of the sun and the warm golden timbre of the mandolin and string quartet playing together.

The work is structured in three movements conceived as a temporal sequence of primal daily sun events (sunrise, noon, sunset) which the composer describes as follows:

The sun was one of the first objects of worship and it has been surmised that the idea of a holy trinity … relates to the three distinct positions of the sun: sunrise (father), noon (son), and sunset (spirit). Sunrise is “the father of the day”; midday represents the fullness of energy, the son; and sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection – the spirit. To me, these three states represent not just “father, son and spirit” but also perhaps, the reflection upon an action about to happen (sunrise), the action itself (noon), and the reflection on the action that happened (sunset).

Cymbeline was written especially for Avi Avital and is dedicated to him and his wife Roni, in honour of their recent marriage.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Alexander Melnikov

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22

Chopin’s funereal, passacaglia-like Prelude in C minor from his collection of 24 Preludes Op. 28 provides the theme for Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work for solo piano, his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, completed in 1903. Taking as his point of departure the prelude’s hymn-like harmonies and recurring opening motive (one note up, three notes down), Rachmaninoff creates a vehicle for displaying not only his pianistic prowess, but also his compositional moxie.

In these 22 rather abstract but extraordinarily inventive variations we discover a composer who channels the great pianistic traditions of the 19th century: the Slavic melancholy of Chopin, the march rhythms and poetic introspection of Schumann, the keyboard sparkle of Liszt, and the bass-heavy sound palette of Brahms. To these features Rachmaninoff adds his own penchant for multi-layered textures rippling with counter-melodies and understated imitative counterpoint.

This tendency is evident in the first three variations. Variation 1 features a shockingly spare, single line of melody noodling around the prelude’s harmonic pattern. This same melodic line then serves as the accompaniment figure in Variation 2, and the subject of a canon in Variation 3. Similar groupings of variations linked by common motivic patterns occur throughout, providing a sense of organic development within the work.

The developmental urge gets stronger with each variation, as does the inclination to show that the composer’s counterpoint classes at the Moscow Conservatory were not wasted. Variation 12 is an outright fugue, and Variation 14 a kind of chorale prelude, with Chopin’s theme singing out proudly in the tenor in quadruple note values, like the cantus firmus of a Renaissance mass movement. This variation presents unusual technical challenges, even to a pianist with the hand of a Rachmaninoff (who on a cold day, and without mittens, could stretch a 12th) since it is not always possible to play all of its four widely-spaced voices at the same time without using the nose – an expedient that, in the interest of maintaining decorum, we are counting on Mr. Melnikov to eschew.

Variation 15 is a Schumannesque scherzo that would have been at home in that composer’s Symphonic Études Op. 13. Schumannesque, as well, are the marches of Variation 19 and the triumphant Variation 22 finale that emerges in a C major as bright and sunny as the opening C minor theme was stoic and grim. The thrillingly suspenseful build-up of orchestral-style excitement that precedes this last variation, and the shimmering cascade of keyboard sound that ends it reveal, perhaps, how close in inspiration this work was to Rachmaninoff’s recently completed Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

In 1931 Rachmaninoff wrote his last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). This theme was, in fact, a traditional Iberian folk-dance tune, a slow sarabande called La Folia that Corelli had used in his Sonata Op. 5 No. 12 for violin and continuo and that many composers after him had used as well – Vivaldi, Bach and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff’s opening statement of the theme is disarmingly simple, emphasizing the pathos inherent in a melody that moves from phrase to phrase in a series of short sighs. On this theme Rachmaninoff actually writes two sets of variations separated by an Intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13, which begin by leaving the theme largely recognizable within a changing series of rhythmic guises before breaking free in Variation 5 to explore more punchy and energetic versions of its harmonic patterning. After another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9 momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At which point Rachmaninoff offers us a kind of champagne sherbet between courses to cleanse the sonic palette. An Intermezzo unfolds in a free improvisatory style that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of keyboard colour.

Our ears thus refreshed, we begin a second set of variations (14-20), with the theme presented to us once again, only this time lower down on the keyboard, and more richly harmonized. It seems to have aged, this melody, since we heard it last, at the work’s opening. It seems now to evoke the emotions of an aged individual looking back nostalgically on a life fully lived, but almost over.

After a tender daydream in Variation 15 Rachmaninoff returns to the muscular keyboard writing for which he is known. The final variations become increasingly animated, eventually erupting into heaven-storming walls of sound echoing back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

And yet, Rachmaninoff unexpectedly backs away from the tumultuous ending he seemed to be rushing headlong towards. Instead, he a drifts off into a coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the dramatic low pedal point that points implacably to its end.

Lovers of dark (really dark) chocolate will love the bitter but heroic fatalism of this ending.

 

Claude Debussy
Preludes for Piano Book 2

Debussy was the composer who freed Western music from the claustrophobic confines of “functional” harmony, the set of rules that for 300 years had governed which chords fit best with which others according to how well their bass notes got along. In Debussy’s world, the scale degrees named in the famous musical mnemonic by pediatric educator Julie Andrews (“Do, a deer, a female deer”) were of little import. What mattered to Debussy was the colour of each chord and the fleeting impressions that harmonic hues and shading could evoke in the mind of the imaginative listener.

Few works sum up Debussy’s practice in this regard more than his two sets of preludes composed between 1909 and 1913. The second set, like the first, features 12 short pieces, each with a descriptive title. These titles Debussy insisted on having printed, in parentheses, at the end of each piece rather than at the beginning, as if each were the whispered answer to a puzzle. Needless to say, this is music of infinite subtlety, much of it built up out of pianissimo murmurs swimming freely in a watery, finely pedalled haze of blurry piano tone out of which strands of melody occasionally float by the ear before disappearing off to the sonic horizon.

Brouillards (Fog) gives a better description of atmospheric conditions than any TV weatherman could provide, its streams of parallel chords in a polytonal buzz of overlapping sonorities evoking the diaphanous fabric of seasonal mists.

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) offers a picture of autumnal stillness, interrupted from time to time by the odd spate of falling leaves drifting gently down to earth.

La puerta del vino (The Gate of Wine) was inspired by a postcard of a gate in the Alhambra Palace sent to Debussy by Manuel Da Falla. It features a pervasive habañera rhythm, imitations of guitar strumming, and elements of flamenco singing in its description of Spanish life.

A book given to Debussy’s daughter, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, was the inspiration for Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) in which the airy elves of legend and fable put on their dancing shoes to float, flutter and hover like hummingbirds to the trills and tremolos electrifying the air of their sylvan surroundings.

In Bruyères (Heather) we find ourselves out on the moors of the Scottish countryside. Light touches of the pentatonic scale give this prelude its rustic feel, along with the evocative calls of a distant shepherd’s flute.

Debussy displays his sly wit and talent for mimicry in an affectionate portrait of the American comedian Edward Lavine, known to his public as General Lavine – eccentric. Lavine was apparently something of a clown, known for his comic impersonations of a wooden puppet and for playing the piano with his toes. Debussy puts the General’s strutting cakewalk theme comically in the bass, accompanied by by many vaudeville-style ba-duh-BOOM! drum-and-cymbal strokes.

Moonlight is the subject of La terrace des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences), conveyed through shimmering, softly glinting harmonies and the use of extreme registers to express the vast expanses lit up by the moon.

Ondine is a water sprite who tempts fishermen to enjoy her company in the depths of rivers and lakes. This prelude conveys her quick darting movements through the splashes of spray she churns up, as well as hinting at the danger lying in wait for the innocent fly-caster.

Homage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. is a humorous musical portrait of Samuel Pickwick Esq. (Perpetual President, Member of the Pickwick Club), the central character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick’s numerous quaint character traits are given a thorough going over in the many witty details of this piece, chief among them his pomposity, expressed in the opening quotation from God Save the Queen.

A Canope is a canopic jar, the recipient in which the internal organs of mummified individuals was held. The thought of this ancient object prompts a meditation on the death of an exotic civilization, evoked in the dead quiet of a ancient tomb.

Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) is the only prelude in the set without an extramusical title. Passing between meditative and toccata-like sections, this piece is written entirely in thirds alternating between the hands and foreshadows the arrival of Debussy’s piano études of 1915.

More virtuosic still is Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), set at a Bastille Day celebration slyly referenced in the distant strain of La Marseillaise heard in the closing bars. Whether you like Roman candles, spinning pinwheels, or exploding cannonballs of multi-coloured glitter, Debussy keeps you dazzled by sending the pianist off to light wicks at both ends of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Winterlude – Suite Saturday with Jean-Guihen Queyras

A Bit of History

Few scholars doubt that Western music was better off for the release of a certain “Bach, Johann Sebastian” from the county jail in Weimar where he had languished, in unsuitable company, for the better part of a month in the autumn of 1717. Court organists can be a stroppy crew at the best of times, and court music directors even more so. But Bach, court organist and music director at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, had pushed ducal patience to the limit.

The cause of all this workplace turmoil was a job offer that Bach had received from the Duke’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. In his rush to pack his bags and cancel his magazine subscriptions, it appears that Bach had failed to observe the finer points of court etiquette – like getting official permission to leave – and several weeks in hoosegow was Officialdom’s response.

Now, readers of a no-nonsense mindset will no doubt be wondering just where all this is leading, and the answer is simple: it leads to the six suites for solo cello that Bach composed at the court of Prince Leopold in or around 1720.

The Prince, you see, was a Calvinist. He had no need for the type of liturgical warbling that composers at Catholic courts were required to produce en masse, as it were. But the Prince was indeed a music-lover. He is said to have played the harpsichord, the violin, and perhaps also the viola da gamba. When the orchestra at the court of Prussia was dissolved in 1714, Leopold eagerly scooped up the best orchestral players to form the core of his own musical establishment and made instrumental music the centrepiece of his princely entertainments.

Bach’s move from Weimar to the court of Prince Leopold, then, pointed his compositional activities firmly in the direction of secular music, and it was to his tenure as the Prince’s Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723 that we owe such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and the Six Suites for Solo Cello.

* * *

No autographed manuscript of the cello suites has survived, although numerous copies were made, the most authoritative being that of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made c.1730. After Bach’s death, these works seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century these works were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Having been intrigued by a 19th- century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began to study the cello suites seriously and performing them in public. Then in 1936 he recorded Suites 1 & 2 at the Abbey Road Studios in London and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world and Casals’ recordings from the 1930s are still an important point of reference for cellists performing today, alongside another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

 

The Baroque Dance Suite

Bach’s time at the court of Anhalt-Köthen had one lasting influence on his compositional life: it instilled in him a love of the dance, as evidenced by the number of dance suites he composed while there.

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances all in the same key, was the ideal DJ party mix for an evening of toe-tapping entertainment among the European middle to upper classes with a taste for international musical culture. In its standard form it presented a buffet-style sampling of the major musical styles of Europe: the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante (or its peppier Italian variant, the corrente), the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue.

Additional optional dances known as galanteries were often added to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. Among these insertions were the courtly minuet (or menuet in French), the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

All of the dances following the prelude are composed in binary (two-part) form. The task of the first part is to find its way to the key of the dominant (five scale tones up from the home key) and land on a satisfying cadence there in its final bar. The job of the second part is then to find its way back to the original key and lay down an even more satisfying cadence – a kind of “Honey, I’m home!” gesture – to let you know that the piece is now finally over. The fact that each of these two parts is normally played twice seemed to matter little to the Baroque ear.

One other practice worthy of note is that of returning to the first of the minuets, gavottes or bourrées after playing the second (contrasting) one, giving a rounded A-B-A form to this brace of optional inserted dances.

* * *

Dance suites were a popular genre of keyboard music in the Baroque period but writing for a solo instrument like the cello, that could play only a single melodic line, posed distinct challenges. Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

But hold on. How do you play harmonies – which is to say chords – on an instrument that only plays a single melodic line? Multi-string chord-playing is possible, of course, but writing multiple stops in every bar is a sure way to send your performer into physio looking for multiple finger splints. The answer is to imply the harmonies you want your listener to hear by slyly emphasizing – and frequently returning to – important fundamental chord notes and tendency tones so that one actually begins to hear a multi-voiced harmonic structure beneath all the fancy filigree. This is how harmonic tension and anticipation is created and when done well you find yourself expecting a certain chord pattern to follow another one – even if neither is stated outright.

This the monetary magic of Quantitative Easing applied to harmonic voice-leading.It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand, this aural perceptual “dance within the dance.”

 

A Few Recommendations

While every listener will have his or her favourites from among the 42 individual dance movements in this collection of suites, the following have etched their way into my musical memory in a way that I cannot, in all honesty, fail to mention.

The opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G has almost become synonymous with Baroque cello music itself. Its nobility of sentiment far transcends what one might expect to admire in a simple repetitive pattern of broken chord figures and connecting scales. The key of G is important here, as the bottom two strings, low G and the D above it, are open strings on the cello and Bach plays to the natural resonance of these two strings in crafting this prelude. The result is a rocking, undulating pattern of tones that evokes a sense of being at peace with the world.

Bach’s sense of sonic resonance is operating at a high level, as well, in the massive build-up of sound in the Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, but this one puts you through the ringer. It features the same rocking pattern of wide-stretching broken chords, made all the more sonorous by the stabilizing presence of the low G used as a pedal tone beneath increasingly dissonance harmonies striving above it.

For sheer grit and dogged resolve it would be difficult to beat the headlong thrust of the Courante from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. This dance turns the cello into a veritable street fighter with bravado to spare. The perky lilt of the Courante from the Suite No. 6, however, makes this same dance form into a real toe-tapper by simply arranging 8ths and 16ths in the right pattern of leaps and scales.

Among the sarabandes, that of the Suite No. 2 D minor wins the prize for wringing the greatest amount of expression out of a single, slow melodic line. But the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C minor is memorable in a different way. Consisting entirely of 8th notes leaping widely over the entire range of the instrument, it manages nonetheless to tell a gripping story full of harmonic tension and much anticipated tension release.

There really is no contest among the galanteries. The Bourrée from the Suite No. 3 in C major has been a favourite since my early adolescence, probably because of the number of popular arrangements that have been made of it. Its easy- going mood and self-evident harmonic drive make it the sort of thing you hum to yourself in the shower. Almost as hummable is the Bourrée from the Suite No. 4 in E flat, with its wonderfully symmetrical phrases.

The gigue with the street cred to really jig it up big time is the one from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. The huge leaps in this movement give this dance movement a specially memorable swagger that stays in the memory long after it has finished.

And finally, a special note of admiration is due to the cellist himself, who in the Suite No. 6 in D will be playing, on a four-stringed cello, a piece originally written for a five- stringed instrument!

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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