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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

Program Notes: Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d’Oro Chamber Orchestra ‘In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music’

WAR, PEACE and BAROQUE OPERA

The lust for war, the longing for peace: emotions such as these lie at the extremes of human experience. What better place to explore them than in the luridly violent, yet touchingly pathos- filled world of Baroque opera, where chaos reigns in the personal lives of kings and queens, stand- ins for our modern nation-states and their suffering populations?

Opera began at the dawn of the 17th century as an aesthetic experiment, an attempt to recover the poetic practices of the ancient world. By the time of Purcell in the 1680s it had become a dramatic genre capable of involving its spectators in the personal lives of its mythical or legendary protagonists. In the hands of Leonardo Leo, Niccolò Jommelli, and George Frideric Handel in the first half of the 18th century, opera developed into a display vehicle for the talents of an emerging class of professional opera singers—and this is where things got just a bit weird.

It was these singers—high-warbling, preening male castrati at the head of the pack—whose astonishing vocal performances began to drive the dramatic agenda in opera. The da capo aria format (A-B-A), in which the opening material returned at the end, was extremely popular as it allowed singers to “riff” on the melody line the second time round in order to show off their high register, their trills, their skill in ornamentation. Plots were often retro-engineered to provide a place for crowd-pleasing set pieces tailored to suit the vocal capacities of individual singers. In such an artistic climate, an opera might become a hot ticket for its thrilling “rage” aria, its tuneful tear-jerking lament, or for some particularly well characterized scene of worry, torment, or other extreme mental state, the more hair-raising the better. In a world still waiting for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, opera provided chills aplenty for its sensation-craving audiences.

All of these are represented in Joyce DiDonato’s curated selection of Baroque arias presented under the rubric In War and Peace.

 

WAR

Scenes of horror, scenes of woe (Handel, Jephtha, 1752)

First out of the gate is Storgè, wife of the Old Testament figure Jephtha who has rashly vowed that if the Almighty will grant him victory in battle he will kill the first person he meets on the road home—his own daughter, as it turns out. In Handel’s last oratorio, Storgè writhes in thrall to dire premonitions of impending doom, giving vent to her anxiety in a spooky recitative and an aria filled with hysterical leaps. The restless, roving orchestral accompaniment paints the wild thoughts ranging around her head.

Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (Leo, Andromaca, 1742)

After the Trojan war, Hector’s widow Andromache tries to save the life of her son by playing the “monster” card, daring Pyrrhus to slaughter the young boy on the spot—and her, too, for good measure.“Drink my blood while you’re at it,” she adds helpfully, by way of culinary encouragement. In an aria filled with frequent changes of mood, Andromache vacillates between blood-thirsty crazy talk and affectionate asides to her son.

Sinfonia (Cavalieri, 1600) and Chaconne in G minor (Purcell, ca. 1680)

Instrumental interludes in early opera served as sonic palate-cleansers, resetting an audience’s emotional register back to ‘neutral’ while at the same time allowing industrious stage-hands to shift furniture on stage. The Sinfonia concluding the first act of Cavalieri’s pioneering Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo repeats a descending scale figure in many guises in a layered orchestral texture featuring a slow, plodding foundation melody enlivened by ornamental chatter in the upper register. Purcell’s Chaconne uses a similar technique, repeating a bass line that prompts the upper instruments into dancelike hops or smooth-flowing descants.

Dido’s Lament (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, 1689)

In Purcell’s retelling of the Dido story from Vergil’s Aeneid, the Queen of Carthage, having been abandoned by her warrior lover Aeneas, dies of a broken heart in the opera’s final scene. Her heart- rending plea “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate” rings out searingly against the implacable march of Fate symbolized by a chromatically descending bass line.

Pensieri, voi mi tormentate (Handel, Agrippina, 1709)

This scene in which Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, frets that her son Nero will never inherit the throne, is remarkable for the dramatic interplay between orchestra and singer. The orchestra seems to stalk this Lady-Macbeth-with-confidence-issues like a Hitchcockian evil-doer, echoing and paralleling her musical thoughts, with the oboe as voyeur-in-chief to her darkest imaginings.

Tristis est anima mea (Gesualdo, 1611)

Carlo Gesualdo was the Caravaggio of sound-painting, mixing dark and light colours to create startlingly emotional portraits of his subject matter. His spiritual madrigal Sorrowful is my soul is set in the garden of Gethsemane. Drooping sigh motives and searing dissonances evoke the pathos of the scene and an animated middle section describes the bustling crowds that have come to witness the arrest of Jesus.

Lascia ch’io pianga (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

During the First Crusade (1095-1099 AD) Almirena, love interest of the warrior Rinaldo, has been abducted by the sorceress Armida and sits down to bemoan her downcast fate. This lilting sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar, imitates perfectly the halting, sighing resignation of this dramatic character.

 

PEACE

They tell us that you mighty powers (Purcell, The Indian Queen, 1695)

Purcell’s The Indian Queen varies the classic star-crossed-lovers theme by setting its story in the New World, with the Aztec warrior Montezuma as Romeo and the Inca heroine Orazia as Juliet. A distinctly anti-war sentiment runs through the work, rendered emotionally appealing by this simple song sung by Orazia to Montezuma as they are sitting together in prison awaiting execution.

Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Handel, Susanna, 1749)

Handel’s oratorio Susanna tells the Biblical story of how a virtuous woman is lusted after and spied on by lecherous elders of her community—an ancient prefiguring of Donald Trump in the dressing rooms of his beauty contestants. The set-up to said ogling is a lush garden complete with rippling stream to bathe in (and ample shrubberies for old men to hide in) where Susanna goes for an innocent little skinny-dip. Handel’s powers of musical description are here at their height, with the gently wafting breezes and softly burbling stream deftly imitated in the orchestral accompaniment.

Da tempeste il legno infranto (Handel, Giulio Cesare, 1724)

The simile aria, which Rossini was to send up to hilarious effect in his comic opera finales, was still alive and well in the Baroque age, principally used as a pretext for the most brazen displays of vocal acrobatics on the part of the great divas of the period. Here Cleopatra compares her rescue by Julius Caesar to the safe arrival of a boat through stormy seas. As over-the-top as the opening section is, expect even more vocal acrobatics in the reprise.

Da pacem Domine (Pärt, 2004/2008)

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been compared to the old masters of Renaissance polyphony: Josquin, Palestrina, Lasso. His minimalist style, much influenced by Gregorian chant, stresses diatonic (scale-based) melodies harmonized without the use of chromaticism or modulation. He uses a compositional technique called tintinnabuli (from the Latin for “bell”) which is based on the overlap of fundamental tones and overtones, typical of the sound-decay patterns of large church bells. His choral work Da pacem Domine (Grant us peace, o Lord) evokes the meditative stillness of 16th-century cathedrals, and the presence of a larger spiritual frame of reference, implied but unspoken.

Augelletti, che cantate (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

Meanwhile back in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, Almirena is thinking about her tender feelings for her warrior beau Rinaldo, happy to find herself in yet another lush garden where the birds are chirping merrily on every bough and branch. She eagerly joins in with the sopranino recorder in a picturesque birdsong duet.

Par che di giubilo (Jommelli, Attilio Regolo, 1753)

The Roman consul and military leader Marcus Atilius Regulus, a hero of the First Punic War (264- 241 BC), has returned home from captivity in Carthage to a joyous welcome from his daughter Attilia, who greets him with an aria expressing her elation at this turn of events. British musicologist Simon Heighes, who wrote the liner notes for Joyce DiDonato’s In War and Peace CD, tells us that this aria revels in the “boundless coloratura” that the Neapolitan school of opera-writing was famous for, supported by an attentive and vibrant orchestral backdrop that points towards the new transparent textures of the coming Classical period.

 

– Donald G. Gislason, 2016

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

 

Antonio  Vivaldi

Siciliana in D minor (arr.  J. S. Bach and Alfred Cortot)

Nothing could be more  Baroque than an arrangement of an arrangement. The Baroque was a period in music  history in which music  travelled freely between instruments and instrumental ensembles. Bach’s Organ  Concerto No. 5 for solo organ BWV  596, composed sometime between 1713 and 1714, was actually his transcription for organ of the slow  movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor Op. 3 No. 11 (RV 565)  for two violins,  strings, and continuo. Bach’s organ version was then  in turn  transcribed for piano  by the French  pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who  recorded his arrangement in 1937.

Written in the lilting dotted rhythm characteristic of the dance  form known as the siciliana,  it evokes  a gentle, pastoral mood tinged with tender melancholy, created by the characteristic use of Neapolitan (flat second scale degree) harmony.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (arr.  Busoni)

For the Baroque organist the combination of toccata and fugue caught both heaven and earth  in its compositional grasp,  pairing fingers and brain,  keyboard virtuosity and contrapuntal mastery. In the 20th century Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor became one of the most popular and recognizable of organ works in this genre,  thanks  largely to its inclusion in Walt Disney’s  animated film  Fantasia (1940) and its subsequent championing by organists as diverse as the austere E. Power  Biggs  and the ever-flamboyant Virgil Fox.

The transcription of this organ work by pianist and industrious Bach-transcriber Ferruccio Busoni  (1866-1924) sets itself  the task of conveying in piano  sonority not only  the flamboyance of the Toccata’s virtuoso flourishes, but  also the complex and rich colouring of the thickly contrapuntal textures that make up the Fugue, with its chattering violinistic subject and many  pedal  points. For this the pianist’s right pedal  foot must be as skilled  as the fingers on his two hands.

 

Franz Schubert

Moments Musicaux Nos. 2 and 3 D. 780

The six small piano  pieces  that Schubert published in 1827 as Moments musicaux are as close as we can get  to hearing what a Schubert evening, a Schubertiade, must have sounded like with Schubert himself at the piano.  These pieces, while congenial in mood, are intimate, almost confidential in tone. They are meant for home  entertaining, and not  far removed from the spirit of song. The melodies are singable and the keyboard range  used extends little beyond the range  of the human  voice.

No. 2 in A flat opens  with a succession of lyrical melodic fragments of small range that stop and start as if a daydream were  being constantly interrupted, and then re-begun. Even the more  sustained tone of the middle section in the minor mode seems to circle  contemplatively around a single  note,  as if caught in a state of reverie.

No. 3 in F minor is the most popular piece  in the set and was subsequently published separately under  the exotic title Air Russe, presumably because  dance- like pieces  in the minor mode were  thought typical of Eastern Europe.  Remarkably homogenous in rhythm, its middle section in F major  is more  characteristically Viennese  than Russian.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in F minor Op. 57 “Appassionata”

Beethoven’s 23rd  piano  sonata  of 1804-1805  is one of the works that,  along with his Fifth Symphony, stands  in the public imagination as emblematic of the composer’s explosive temperament; his angry pose of heroic resistance against all forces that would seek to tame  his indomitable will. Its outer movements, in particular, explored new terrain in terms of dynamic contrast, expressive range  and sheer technical difficulty. It was not  by chance  that he chose the key of F minor for this work,  as this key allowed him to write comfortably for the full keyboard range of his day, from F1 in the bass to a high  C7 in the treble, both of which appear in the score.

And  as he did in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven chose to make his point with a bare minimum of motivic material, the elements of the entire first movement all being presented on the first page  of the score. First there  is the eerie pattern of dotted rhythms that softly rise through an F-minor arpeggio to culminate in a mysterious trill.  Then the repeat of this gesture a semitone higher introduces the idea of Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened second degree of the scale). This is answered by a corresponding semitone drop in the bass, setting up an explosion of sonority that rips down from the high  treble to the very  bottom of the keyboard. The motivic intensity of this movement is so dense that even the second theme,  in A flat, is a mere  variant of the first.  The opening fireworks are balanced, formally, by an extended coda  (as in the Fifth Symphony) that first erupts in apocalyptic fury  and then  relents to end the movement in a quivering tremolo, seething with menace  still, that recedes into  the sonic distance.

The Andante con moto slow  movement, a theme with four variations, is everything that the first movement is not: emotionally stable  and harmonically conventional, its expressive gestures played out  within a relatively small range  circling around the middle of the keyboard.

The dying embers of fading anger  that ended  the first movement return to life in the third movement, announced by a clarion call to arms on an unstable diminished 7th chord. This finale  is a moto perpetuo of restless  16th notes  ranging feverishly in a combination of arpeggios and scale patterns over  wide  swathes of the keyboard.

Here, too, motivic economy is much  in evidence: witness how  the second theme is merely a reproduction of the first,  but  placed in the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher.  Things  come  to a head in a closing Presto  section, described by Sir András Schiff  as a kind  of “demonic czardas,” that stomps and skips until  a final whirlwind of moto perpetuo material returns to sweep  the work to its conclusion in a cascade  of broken chords rattling from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.

 

Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata  No. 6 is the first of the three  “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6, 7, and 8) written between 1939 and 1944 while  the Soviet Union  was at war with Nazi Germany. The Sixth  Sonata  was completed in 1940 and demonstrates well the obsessive rhythmic drive,  percussive attack, and dissonance-encrusted harmonies that characterize Prokofiev’s style  of piano  writing. The work comprises four movements which,  given  the extreme modernity of their  musical language, are laid out  in a surprisingly traditional pattern: sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo,  slow  third movement, and rondo finale.

The sonata  opens  with an arresting ‘motto’ that descends three  scale steps, doubled with first a major  and then  a minor 3rd (C natural then  C #), creating a brilliantly colourful bitonal effect that,  even if it weren’t stutteringly repeated almost 40  times  in the course  of the exposition, would be memorable. A more tranquil second subject offers a contrasting vision  of where things are going, but  both are put  through the wringer in a development section peppered with repeated notes  before the opening motto returns in a recapitulation of brutal directness enacted over  a keyboard range  of more  than six octaves.

The Allegretto second movement has been called  a “quick march” and with a dependable four staccato beats  to the bar its metrical regularity comes  as a welcome relief  after the chaotic events  of the first movement. Its espressivo middle section adds a more  expansive note  of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. This movement ends almost humorously as its colourful harmonic pulses veer into port in the very  last bar.

The slow  waltz Tempo  di valzer  lentissimo, while  lacking any real Viennese  sense of lilt, has a wonderful vulnerability about it that is quite touching despite, or perhaps because  of the searching quality of its constantly shifting inner  voices,  even in the more  turbulent middle section.

The work closes, like the other two War Sonatas, with a toccata of breathless drive that scampers playfully between tonal centres like it owned them  all. It becomes increasingly haunted, however, by the thematic ghosts of the first movement and ends firmly in the grip  of the opening motto.

 

Mily Balakirev

Islamey Op. 18

Islamey  is one of those  lesser known pieces  from the 19th century that nonetheless had a significant impact on successive generations of composers. It was quoted by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Scheherazade, by Borodin in Prince Igor, and it remains  in the orchestral repertoire today thanks  to arrangements made  by Alfredo Casella and Sergei Lyapunov.

Mily Balakirev was the unofficial leader  of the Russian Five, a handful of musicians including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and César Cui who  sought to ground their  works in authentic Slavic musical traditions. Balakirev was himself an avid collector of folk tunes, and it was on a visit  to the Caucasus in 1863 that he first encountered the dance  tune  known as ‘Islamey’  that would become the first theme of his eponymous work for piano  solo, subtitled Fantaisie orientale.

A folksong popular among the Tatars  of Crimea  forms the subject of the work’s more  tranquil and lyrical middle section.

Islamey  was likely  composed as a virtuoso showpiece for Nikolai Rubinstein to perform at a concert held in late 1869 at the Free Music School  in St. Petersburg, founded by Balakirev. Rubinstein’s subsequent remark that he found certain passages  “difficult to manage” gained the work a reputation for being unplayable and it has doubtless driven many  a pianist into  physiotherapy—perhaps even psychotherapy—for attempting it. Scriabin was said to have injured his right hand while  trying to learn it, and Ravel famously remarked that his Gaspard  de la nuit was an attempt to write “a piece  more  difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey.”

Among the interpretive challenges the work presents is the choice of tempo. Long  stretches of interlocking passagework between the hands need to be able to “speak” well on the keyboard if the peppery rhythmic vitality and dancelike character of its opening theme are to be captured. Otherwise all one hears is a blur  of notes.  For Islamey  is more  than a mere  circus  act. It stands  at the apex of Romantic-era works for the virtuoso pianist and counts as a significant contribution to the cause of 19th-century musical nationalism in Russia.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Anna Fedorova

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Fantasia in D minor K. 397

Mozart’s D minor Fantasia is a bundle of mysteries; an intriguing sound-puzzle for the listener but a labyrinthine minefield of interpretive choices for the pianist. Mere slavish attention to the details of the printed score—the motto and creed of historically informed pianism—risks missing the point entirely in a work so obviously based on the spirit of free improvisation, with its seven distinct sections, three cadenzas, and constantly changing tempos and moods.

Worse still, the work that dates from 1782 remained unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791 and the first printed edition (Vienna, 1804) simply ends on a cliff-hanging dominant seventh chord. This has prompted subsequent editors to bring the work into port with an additional 10 measures provided by “another hand” (to use the scholarly phrase), not without a certain measure of eyebrow elevation on the part of purists, to be sure.

Sniffing at the brute amateurishness of this solution, Mitsuko Uchida, for one, ignores these additions and instead repeats the opening arpeggios at the end of her recording of the piece to bring a rounded symmetry to the form and preserve Mozartean authorship throughout.

What will Ms. Fedorova do? In a piece predicated on improvisatory surprise, it is perhaps best for listeners not to know in advance.

 

Frédéric  Chopin

Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49

Despite its generic title, Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor of 1841 is every bit as nationalist in sentiment as his mazurkas and polonaises, based as it is on motives from many of the patriotic songs nostalgically sung by his fellow Polish emigrés in Paris who, like Chopin himself, were unable to return to their native land after the failed Warsaw uprising of November 1830. Indeed, Theodor Adorno has described the work as a “tragically decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever, that someday […] she would rise again.”

It begins in the low register of the keyboard with a mysterious march of uncertain import. What begins in imitation of the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a military parade soon drifts almost imperceptibly into the gentle lilt of dance music in an elegant aristocratic salon. Wide-spanning arpeggiated passagework links the various sections of the work that move through moods of restless anxiety to forthright defiance, and, finally to the exultation of military triumph, evoked in a strutting cavalry march.

At the very heart of the piece, however, is a restrained Lento sostenuto that calls a momentary truce to all the patriotic posturing to express the simple nobility of the Polish soul, an echo of which is heard in recitative before the work swells resolutely in rippling arpeggios to its conclusion.

 

Toru Takemitsu

Uninterrupted Rests

Toru Takemitsu rose to prominence in the 1950s to become, in the words of his countryman Seiji Ozawa, “the first Japanese composer to write for a world audience and achieve international recognition.” Largely self-taught, he was influenced by the music of Debussy and Messiaen, by the musique concrète experiments of Pierre Shaeffer, and by Balinese gamelan music, becoming known especially for his sensitivity to the play of timbre and sound colour.

Uninterrupted Rests (1952-1959) is a work in three movements that seeks to capture the mood of a nature poem by Shūzō Takiguchi about the heaviness of a dark night with the wind and cold weighing on every moth and twig.

Takemitsu shared John Cage’s view that silence was an actual presence in music, rather than an absence, and his score reflects this by giving dynamic markings even to rests, to indicate the intensity with which they are to be felt.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Preludes Op. 32 and Op. 23

Rachmaninoff’s masterful control of pianistic colour and sonority is on full display in his Preludes Op. 23 (1901-03) and Op. 32 (1910). By no means miniatures, these works are more akin in their scale and ambition to the Chopin Études Opp. 10 and 25 than to the same composer’s brief Preludes Op. 28.

The Prelude in G major Op. 32 No. 5 makes colourful use of the high register to present a delicate melody floating placidly above a murmuring accompaniment in the mid-range, hazily blurred in the ear by the unusual five-against-three patterning of the left and right hands. It is hard not to think of birds chirping on a clear cold winter’s day when listening to this prelude.

The bright and jangling open-fifth accompaniment figure that begins the Prelude in G# minor Op. 32 No. 12 tempts and taunts a pensive baritone melody in the darker regions of the keyboard below that emerges to plead its case with ever-increasing urgency.

The muscular Prelude in B flat Op. 23 No. 2 projects the power and dynamism of the virtuoso pianist with a thunderous left-hand accompaniment pattern sweeping over three octaves to set up a forceful right-hand protagonist that strikes grandiose poses until it discovers its own beating heart in the more varied, but equally tumultuous, middle section.

 

Robert  Schumann

Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasy Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenage daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wiecks. The Fantasy’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in the movement’s mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a grand sonata in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices, and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement “sonata” was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: István Várdai

Felix Mendelssohn

Variations  Concertantes Op. 17

Felix was not the only musician in the Mendelssohn family. His older sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was a prodigiously talented pianist and composer, although she chose marriage over a public career, and his younger brother Paul Mendelssohn (1812-1874) was no slouch as a cellist, to judge by the Variations Concertantes that Felix wrote for him in 1829.

The adjective concertantes in the title underlines the notion that this work was written for two solo instruments, not one instrument accompanying another. In the late 18th century sonatas for cello and piano were grossly lopsided affairs. In an age without sound technicians to turn a knob and boost the bass frequencies

in a chamber ensemble, piano sonatas were often published with an optional cello part doubling the bass line. This gave a bit of “oomph” to the lower regions where the sound of the early fortepiano, forerunner of the modern concert grand, was lamentably thin.

It was Beethoven who elevated the cello to the status of equal interlocutor in duo chamber works with cello, beginning with his Op. 5 sonatas for cello and piano. And Beethoven is an important point of reference in the musical style of this work (especially his Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26), although the spirit of Mozart hovers over the variation theme with its feminine cadence patterns, as well.

The compositional task, in sets of variations such as these, is to keep the listener’s interest engaged by constantly varying the texture and mood. Mendelssohn accomplishes this in pairs of tag-team variations that see first the cello, then the piano taking a leading role.

It is Var. 7, in which the cozy, parlour haze of Biedermeier domesticity is stripped from the theme in a minore variation with flying octaves in the piano part and operatic recitative in the cello, that points clearly in the direction of the Romantic era to come. Then, after reprising the opening theme in all its simplicity in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final variation takes things further in an extended coda of Beethovenian proportions that nonetheless tapers the work to an elegant conclusion in a mood of tranquility and repose.

 

Igor Stravinsky

Suite Italienne  (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky)

Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Pulcinella, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in May 1920, exemplifies the new neo-classical style which he adopted after the First World War. Setting aside the bold rhythmic experiments and gargantuan orchestral ensembles that had propelled his pre-war ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring  (1913) to international success, he looked instead to create more transparent textures, with fewer instruments, in direct imitation of music of the past.

The ballet Pulcinella features stories about the traditional stock characters of Italian commedia dell’ arte and Stravinsky’s musical score is equally traditional, using melodies from the gracious scores of Neapolitan opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Music this easy on the ears was bound to spawn arrangements and in 1932 Stravinsky and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky set to work on a version for cello and piano, completed in 1933.

Stravinsky’s aim was not to produce a mere pastiche of the earlier composer’s style, but rather a modernist re-imagining of Pergolesi’s melodies in a post-World-War world. He preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadences and Baroque ornamentation of the originals, but signalled a new modernist context for the work by means of numerous irregularities such as strong accents on weak beats of the bar and exaggerated dissonance in the bass-line—a clever way of increasing sonic resonance without thickening the score.

The Introduzione is the overture to the ballet, written in the Baroque ritornello style; that is, structured as a regular alternation between sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and sections played by a small group of soloists (concertino). These structural divisions are still audible in the cello and piano version, as well.

The gentle lilt and dotted rhythm of the Serenata  identifies it a sicilienne. It is based on the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes) from Pergolesi’s Il Flaminio (1735) but its overall mood of pastoral tranquillity also contained an odd hint of melancholy.

In the following Air, the cello plays the role of the socially awkward basso buffo Bastiano from Il Flaminio pleading his suit to the love of his life—unsuccessfully, to judge from the lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ‘nnamurato (1732) that follows.

The virtuoso showpiece of the suite is the Tarantella, set in the high register of the cello and featuring a whirlwind of melodies spun out at breakneck speed.

The Minuetto and finale  builds up gradually in excitement from its opening tone of sustained elegy until it finally explodes into an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an 18th-century comic opera finale, from which emerges a series of nostalgic reminiscences of the most hummable phrases from the overture.

 

Zoltan  Kodály

Sonatina for Cello and Piano

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are considered the fathers of Hungarian art music. Their work collecting wax-cylinder recordings of folksongs in the Hungarian countryside and in Hungarian-inhabited areas of Slovakia and Romania counts among the earliest contributions to the field of ethnomusicology. While the music of both composers displays clear signs of both their Classical training and their interest in folk culture, Kodály’s synthesis of these two influences was more easily received by the Hungarian public than that of Bartók.

At the heart of Kodály’s music is an interest in melody and his Sonatina for Cello and Piano of 1922 overflows with a passionate lyricism that situates it a direct line of descent from the cello works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvořák.

Structured in a type of sonata form without formal development, the work owes much of its pentatonic style of melody construction to Hungarian folk music, while its often shimmering piano textures, remarkable in their variety, are clearly influenced by the composer’s exposure to French impressionism and the music of Debussy in particular.

 

György Ligeti

Sonata for Solo Cello

György Ligeti (pronounced LI-ge-ti) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known to popular audiences for the use of his searing scores Atmosphères (1961), Lux Aeterna (1966), Requiem (1965), and Aventures (1962) used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

His early career, before he emigrated from Hungary in 1956, was beset with the difficulties inherent in working under a communist regime suspicious of artistic innovation and other “bourgeois” tendencies. His Sonata  for Solo Cello, which was banned by the Composers’ Union for its modernity, comes from this period.

The Sonata comprises two contrasting movements, the first composed in 1948 and the second five years later in 1953. The first movement Dialogo is written without fixed metre and depicts a conversation between a man and a woman—a conversation narrowly focused on a small range of topics, it would appear, given the amount of repetition of the opening phrases.

The second movement, entitled Capriccio, is a strictly metered moto perpetuo in 3/8 time that pays tribute to the virtuoso exuberance of Paganini’s famous Caprices for violin.

 

Johannes Brahms

Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 99

The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year- old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.

The first movement Allegro vivace opens in sweeping fashion with a feverish quivering of piano tremolos over which the cello sets out its thematic agenda in a series of bold fanfares. This pattern of tremolos will form an important unifying motif throughout the movement as a stabilizing counterbalance to the melodic fragmentation that characterizes the principal theme.

The second movement Adagio affettuoso is in simple ternary form. Its principal theme, sung out with full-throated fervour by the cello after a brief introduction, is remarkably chromatic but vocally lyrical nonetheless. The piano takes the spotlight in the minor-mode middle section, but then welcomes the cello back to sing out once again, its theme graced with an even more decorative accompaniment than before.

If the second movement belongs to the cello, it is the piano that captures the ear in the third movement Allegro passionato, a scherzo featuring strongly assertive keyboard writing that makes the piano a major presence in the sonority. Adding to its punch and impact are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms and “oomphy” syncopations reminiscent of those in the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor.  In this movement it is the cello that gets to shine in the middle section, where it hums out a wistful melody of irregular phrase lengths that suggests the influence of folksong.

The sonata concludes with a gentle rondo of uncomplicated design written in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83. The simple, rhythmically repetitive tune that opens the movement alternates with a series of short contrasting episodes that, even when cast in the minor mode, seem only designed to highlight all the more the contentment to be gained by returning to the major.

Program Notes: Ksenija Sidorova

The Concert Accordion

 

Early Beginnings

The accordion has for centuries been associated with music of a light or popular nature. Its portability, full harmonic texture and penetrating, reedy timbre have made it the ideal mini-orchestra for country dances and the perfect one-man house band for city cafés and music halls. The very sound of the accordion oozes nostalgia. Indeed the sound of accordion music has long been cinematic shorthand for identifying a film’s setting as the city of Paris, even before the Eiffel Tower comes into view.

It took a long time to develop the idea that the accordion might be taken seriously as a concert instrument, partly because opportunities for developing skill in performance through professional instruction were few. Then, of course, there was the problem of repertoire. What pieces were there for concert accordionists to play? And finally, the instrument itself needed to be improved, in the way the piano and orchestral instruments had been strengthened and made more versatile in the 19th century, in order to provide a worthy vehicle for the compositional inspirations of major composers.

In the early 20th century, major progress on these issues was made in the Soviet Union, with meaningful contributions from Denmark and England. Folk music, the core of the accordion repertoire, was at the centre of Soviet policy on music education and so the first professional accordion program was established at the Kiev Conservatory in 1927, with similar programs subsequently appearing in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian cities.

On May 22, 1935, the renowned accordionist Pavel Gvozdev gave the first accordion recital in the Soviet Union in Leningrad and two years later performed a new concerto for accordion and orchestra by Feodosiy Rubtsov (1904–1986) in the Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, events which greatly stimulated interest in the artistic potential of the accordion.

 

The Accordion Gets a Makeover

Of even greater importance were changes made to the instrument itself in the period following WWII. Two types of accordions were in use. The traditional Russian accordion, the bayan, had buttons on both sides of the bellows while the piano accordion featured a regular piano keyboard on the right and buttons on the left. Both used the Stradella bass system for the left hand, an arrangement of single bass notes over a single octave alternating with buttons that played major, minor, diminished, or dominant 7th chords. While this configuration was ideal for the ‘oom-pah-pah’ pattern of dance music, it represented a serious barrier to composing for the concert repertoire.

With the arrival of the free-bass system with its arrangement of single-note buttons extending over a wide range, accordionists were able for the first time to play bass melodies and create their own chords, instead of having to use the pre-set chords of the Stradella system. In addition, new stops were devised that expanded the range of timbres available on the instrument. The accordion had now become a fully polyphonic instrument, capable of performing in chamber ensembles and of performing transcriptions of classic works in the concert repertoire.

 

The Modern Accordion

One of the first to exploit the new possibilities of these improvements was the Danish accordionist Mogens Ellegaard (1935–1995) who, from the 1950s onward, challenged composers to write serious works for the accordion. One of his first commissions was the Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro for accordion and orchestra (1958) by the Danish conductor and composer Ole Schmidt (1928-2010).

While the Russian bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips (b. 1948) moved the bar forward in his country, championing in particular the music of Astor Piazzola, Ellegaard’s student, the Scots-born Owen Murray, brought his teacher’s enthusiasm for the accordion back to Britain. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1982, Murray made history by being appointed professor of accordion at the Royal Academy of Music in 1986, marking the arrival of academic respectability for the accordion in one of the most prestigious musical institutions in Europe.

Murray’s student at the Royal Academy, Ksenija Sidorova, continues the work of creating a place for the accordion on the concert stage, playing both transcriptions of established works in the classical canon and a growing number of modern and contemporary compositions written specifically for the accordion. She plays an artisan-crafted instrument from the workshops of the Italian manufacturer Pigini in Ancona, considered the Rolls-Royce of accordion-makers. Her instrument (which she calls “the Beast”) has a left-hand range of four and a half octaves, and a special chin-activated stop which allows lightning-fast changes in timbre.

 

Program Notes

 

Piotr Londonov

Scherzo-Toccata

Piotr Petrovich Londonov was a prolific contributor to the accordion repertoire through his many arrangements of Slavic and Scandinavian folk songs. This breathless, almost frantic, Scherzo-Toccata is extremely popular among accordionists, judging from how often it has been played at international competitions and the number of YouTube videos of the piece currently online.

Written for bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips as a test piece for a competition in Geneva in 1979, it combines the repeated-note figuration of the traditional chattering toccata with the repeated short phrase fragments of the scherzo, alternating between sections of purposeful drive and carefree cheerfulness.

From Kesenija Sidorova: Scherzo-Toccata was a compulsory piece for several accordion competitions, and is frequently performed by accordionists all over the world. It is a cheerful short piece, which explores different techniques on this versatile instrument.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Twelve Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” K. 265

The sheer audacity of writing piano variations on a theme so childlike and innocent as “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”) is a gesture uniquely Mozartean in its impertinence. The only modern equivalent would be the fugues based on tunes by Britney Spears that are so impudently posted on YouTube nowadays by composition students with too much time on their hands.

Mozart’s treatment of the theme is for the most part figural. He slices & dices the structural harmonic outline of his thematic material to re-present it with pearly right-hand decorations and insurgent left-hand runs, in coy echoes and ever-so- serious imitative entries, and finally with the obligatory set pieces: a poised and elegant operatic adagio followed by a rousing eggbeater of a finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Barcarolle Op. 10 No. 3

Rachmaninoff completed his group of Salon Pieces Op. 10 in 1894. The third of the set is a barcarolle, a type of character piece patterned after the boat songs of Venetian gondoliers. But the rocking motion typical of the barcarolles of Chopin and Mendelssohn is here given a mere suggestion by Rachmaninoff in the quavering triplet figures that flutter throughout the first section, perhaps in imitation of water lapping at the edge of a boat.

In the middle section, the accompaniment evolves into an animated swirl of frothy running figures that only serve to further emphasize the lonely isolation of the main melody singing out below in the baritone range. This hauntingly timid, rhythmically uncertain melody comes across particularly well in the plaintive reed timbre of the accordion, so well that one could easily imagine this mood piece having been originally written for the instrument.

 

Anatoly Kusyakov

Autumnal Sceneries

Composer Anatoly Ivanovich Kusyakov paints the autumnal geography of his native Russia in six musical landscapes that employ the full sonorous resources of the accordion. His musical language is a modernist extension of traditional harmony that features dense chordal structures marbled through with contrapuntal motives.

Autumn reveries introduces us to the Russian landscape in a series of bellows-heavy sighs alternating with simpler phrases of a more optimistic stamp. Leaf-fall paints the dance of leaves in the wind with a fast-moving treble scurrying above a slower- moving melody in the bass below. The quirky gate of Soiree Mood conjures a vision of some character out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. One could easily imagine the scene of an ugly duckling moving slowly and awkwardly across the landscape.

Forgotten Chimes has a chorale-like dignity reminiscent of Bach’s organ music with its monumental build-up of harmonic tension and instrumental sonority. Cranes describes the passing of majestic birds overhead in a series of soulful dissonant chords over a relentless ostinato bass. The final scene, Wind Dance, is the most virtuosic of the set, featuring both hands moving in fast figuration at a breathless pace.

From Kesenija Sidorova: The first movement, Autumnal reveries, immerses us in the spirit and mood of autumn—rain drops, wind, distant memories of summer. The second movement reminds us somewhat of the last movement (Presto) of Chopin’s B flat minor piano sonata, Op.35, “wind howling around the gravestones”.

The third movement is very picturesque, with interweaving lyrical and wild themes.

The fourth movement, Forgotten chimes, depicts the ruins of the cathedral and the distant sound of the church bells. The fifth movement, Cranes, is inspired by a poem of the same name by Rasul Gamzatov about the souls of the fallen soldiers, who,

“Were buried not in soil to be forgotten,

But turned into white cranes in flight instead.”

The final movement dispels the heavy dark mood with its sarcastic accentuated patterns and melodies inspired by Russian folklore.

 

Semionov Viatcheslav

Red Guelder-Rose (“Kalina  Krasnaya”)

From Kesenija Sidorova: Semionov is regarded as one of the pioneers of the contemporary accordion and is a well-known concert performer, pedagogue, and composer. Since 1995 he has held the title of People’s Artist of the Russian Federation. Guelder  Rose was composed in 1976 in memoriam to a great Russian film director, Vassily Shukshin, who directed and acted in the movie of the same name. It was the most successful film of the year (1974) and is widely known even outside of the USSR.

The song is about an unrequited love. It instantly became popular and sometimes is mistakenly regarded as traditional.

 

Alfred  Schnittke

Revis Fairytale

Satire is a powerful force in politics. The Soviet authorities knew this when, in 1978, they banned The Inspector’s Tale, a stage adaptation of Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel satirizing official corruption in czarist Russia. But Alfred Schnittke’s incidental music to this production survived the ban to resurface in in the 1985 ballet Esquisses (Sketches), which added a whole host of other Gogol characters to the mix. The music from this ballet lives on in the suite created by accordionists Yuri Shishkin, Friedrick Lips, and Ksenija Sidorova, entitled Revis Fairy Tale.

This is music with satiric intent woven deep into its fabric. Chichikov’s Childhood attempts to reveal the psychological make-up in early childhood of the central protagonist in Dead Souls, who absurdly seeks to buy from Russian landowners the ownership rights to their deceased serfs. The musical styles of Haydn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky bear witness to the grotesquely simplistic thinking that was Chichikov’s special gift since birth.

Officials scurries along in mock-bureaucratic haste, helped along by snippets of Mozart’s Magic Flute  overture, while Waltz channels Shostakovich’s genre-deflating practices with slow-motion oom-pah-pahs and a comic choice of timbres.

The last piece in the set, Polka, evokes the improvisational whims of the gypsy violinist, starting slow but then accelerating to an exhilarating pace, flickering all the while between major and minor tonalities.

From Ksenija Sidorova: This fairy tale was first transcribed by Russian accordion virtuoso Yuri Shishkin, and subsequently by F. Lips and K. Sidorova. In the first movement, the happy childhood of Pavel Chichikov is polystylistic, combining familiar themes from many sources such as Mozart’s Magic Flute  and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The waltz represents one of the scenes in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the last movement, a Polka, recalls the character Akaky Bashmachkin from a short story, The Overcoat, also by Gogol. In the story the hero scrimps and scrapes in order to buy himself an overcoat to replace his threadbare one, but late one night he is mugged by two robbers who steal it. Receiving no help from the authorities, but rather a reprimand, Bashmachkin becomes ill and dies but his ghost haunts the city, stealing other people’s coats in revenge.

 

Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

The collection of German folk poetry published between 1805 and 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) had an enormous influence on the development of German lyric poetry and song in the 19th century, and the artless simplicity of these verses was particularly attractive to Gustav Mahler. Over half of his solo songs derive from this collection, many in both chamber and orchestral versions, and some even found their way into his symphonies, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies in particular.

Growing up in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, Mahler heard a great deal of military music when young and a number of his settings reflect his early fascination with this kind of music. There is, however, a tragic undertow in the military songs he chose to set from the Wunderhorn collection. Their mood is sombre, occasionally even macabre. They glint with an irony that pays tribute to the dark subtext lying beneath their childlike surface of story-telling.

Revelge (Reveille) marches to the tramping beat of a drummer wounded in battle who rouses the mortal remains of his fallen comrades to a ghastly advance against the foe. The mock-gleeful refrain of tralali, tralaley underscores the eerie ‘esprit de corpse’ of this grotesque procession.

Der Tamboursg’sell (The drummer boy) features another doomed drummer, this time marching to the gallows for the crime of desertion. Regular drum rolls mark the pace of this funeral procession while major-minor alternations in the harmony give voice to the boy’s wavering psychological state.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the splendid trumpets sound) is a variant of the medieval Tagelied, depicting the reluctant separation of lovers at dawn. Distant trumpet fanfares symbolize the soldier’s call of duty but the “green heath” of battle he must hasten to will be his new home, in death.

 

Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

The death of the promising 28-year-old composer-turned-soldier Rudi Stephan, victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Eastern Front, is one of the great losses that WWI inflicted on Western music. His song collection Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) sets poems by Gerda von Robertus, the pseudonym of Gertrud Emily von Schlieben (1873-1939). Hohelied is the German term for the Song of Solomon and Stephan’s sultry and sensual settings attempt to express the power of love as both spiritual and erotic, in imitation of the Biblical text.

These songs, with their simple piano accompaniments, are exquisite miniatures that move forward in unhurried waves of emotion, luminously depicting in gently dissonant but firmly tonal harmonies the bittersweet yearning and imaginative wanderings of the lover’s heart.

The background strumming of the ancient lyre and the rippling of the ocean waves can be heard in the piano part of Kythere (Cythera), that describes a voyage to the perfume-scented isle of the love-goddess Venus. The pouncing potential of the lover-as-panther can be heard in the jumpy rhythms of Pantherlied (Panther song). Infinite delicacy in both the voice and piano parts of Abendfrieden (Evening peace) evokes the stillness of the twilight hours.

The mysterious exoticism of In Nachbars Garten (In the neighbours garden) paints the painful joy of witnessing love from afar. The steady pace of Glück zu Zweien counts the steps of a pair of lovers climbing ever higher to take in the vistas that their own togetherness presents to them. And finally, the unearthly stillness of Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) evokes night as the geographic centre of love’s domain.

 

George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

Many a British soldier in the Great War carried with him to the front a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and the attraction would be easy to see. The poems in this collection by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896, were written in the straightforward language of the English farmer, laid out in the simple rhythmic patterns of English folk song. They present an idealized picture of country life, used as a lens through which to view the harsh realities of war and death. The stark fatalism of these poems, studded with their nostalgic reminders of home, would have appealed to those living in the trenches in France, many of them destined to be, in Housman’s casually chilling phrase, “lads that will never be old.”

George Butterworth, a graduate of Eton, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, was killed in the Great War. A few years before the outbreak of hostilities, he composed two sets of songs to the poems in this collection, the first of which we will hear this evening. These settings give pride of place to the voice, to which the piano offers an extremely sparse accompaniment, with many modal turns

of harmony that evoke a folk-song-like style of expression. None more so than the last and most celebrated song of the set, Is my team ploughing?, an almost speech-like rendering in dialogue of the meeting between a dead soldier’s ghost and his best friend, still alive, who is reluctant to reveal with whose sweetheart he now lays down at night.

 

Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

Kurt Weill is best known for his hit tune “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, which he composed in collaboration with Bertold Brecht in 1928 as reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. As a successful Jewish composer of stage music he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and was forced to flee in 1933. He eventually settled in New York in 1935, where he took to his new home with relish and began to write for the Broadway stage.

Immediately after Pearl Harbour, he set to work on a contribution to the war effort: composing songs to texts by the American poet Walt Whitman. Three Whitman songs were completed in 1942. A fourth was added in 1947. All four deal with the most compelling event of Whitman’s time, the American Civil War.

Beat! Beat! Drums! is a vigorous call to battle that Weill sets as a stomping march in a modernist idiom very close to the polemical style of his earlier theatre works.

O Captain! My Captain! is Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Its style is definitely Broadway, which gives this lament an all-the-more common touch as a tribute piece.

Come up from the Fields, Father tells the story of the arrival of a letter from the army to tell a family that their only son is dead. The fulsome piano accompaniment gives this tragic scene its full measure of dignity.

Dirge for Two Veterans commemorates the death of a father and son in the same battle, juxtaposing the beauty of a landscape at dusk with the sense of loss that these twin deaths brings. In painting the scene, Weill gives each sentiment a different harmonic colouring.

 

Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote poetry in Scots dialect in his poems for children, and in standard English in his more serious verse. Benjamin Britten used both kinds of poems by Soutar in his Who Are These Children, a work that jarringly contrasts the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with the destructive power of war. It is this latter power, the power to destroy, that occupies the four songs in standard English from this song cycle being presented by Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Du this evening.

Nightmare is ostensibly about the chopping down of a tree by “a dark shape,” but its symbolic resonance is much more powerful. Britten paints the tree’s dreamlike existence in the piano’s right-hand ostinato figures, the “murderer” of that dream in ominously low left-hand octaves.

Slaughter pits the voice, struggling to tell its tale, against a restless toccata- chatter of piano cuts and thrusts ranging widely over the keyboard, emblematic of the disconnect between the power to destroy and the power of bearing witness to that destruction. This is a scene in which “wise men are made dumb.”

Who are these children? paints a country scene as absurd as it is gallingly immoral: an elegant fox-hunting party rides through town on horseback during a world war that sees bombs falling on cities. Britten first paints the prancing procession of rich folk before switching his musical sympathies to the children onlookers, recently escaped from “fire and smoke,” whose uncomprehending stare sums up the poet’s indignation.

An eerie calm pervades The Children, a song that pictures the bodies of children lying in the streets after a bombing raid. The world seems unconcerned, and “the stars move to their places” as if nothing unusual had happened. Britten’s use of a rippling ostinato figure in the treble of the piano part represents the moral bewilderment that such a horrific scene would provoke in any thinking person.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Bryn Terfel

Idris Lewis
Cân yr arad goch (Ceiriog)

The Welsh poet John Hughes (1832-1887), who took the bardic name Ceiriog, is known as the “Robert Burns of Wales.” Like the great Scottish poet, he sought to express his love for his homeland through poems written in the simple, sincere language of the common people, drawing upon themes of patriotism, the joys of country life, and the simple pleasures of love. His poem Cân yr arad goch (Song of the red plough) sings the praises of rural life through the eyes of the traditional farmer and his daily companion, the plough. It was set to music by Idris Lewis (1889-1952), the son of a Welsh coal miner who became an important figure in Welsh music, principally for his pioneering work as musical director of the BBC for the Cardiff region, as well as for his film scores and choral arrangements.

Meirion Williams
Gwynfyd – Y Cymro

The pianist, organist, conductor, and composer William Robert Williams (1901- 1976), who early in life took the name Meirion, was a major contributor to the development of Welsh art song. A musical patriot, he was much attracted to the simple pleasures of the Welsh countryside and the native virtues of his fellow Welshmen, which he expressed in a passionate, melodious style that has much in common with the late Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss. It would be easy to conclude that the “land of beauty and of peace” in his Gwynfyd (Paradise) is Wales, while no intuition at all is required to recognize the patriotic fervour behind his stirring setting of Y Cymro (The Welshman).

Owen Williams
Sul y blodau

Owen Williams (1877-1956) was a Welshman of humble origins but great musical gifts. He became a village shoemaker, like his father, but attracted a large following as a local music teacher. Palm Sunday in Wales is traditionally a day in which flowers are brought to the graves of loved ones. Williams’ setting of Eifion Wyn’s tribute to his baby brother Goronwy is a lullaby both touching and mournful.

Frederick Keel
Salt Water Ballads

The “Britishness” of Britain is seated deep in its status as an island, surrounded by the sea, and few poets can claim to express the nation’s fascination with the seafaring life as did John Masefield (1878-1967), English poet laureate from 1930 to 1967. His introduction into English poetry of the salty dialectal speech of mariners was a shock to the literary establishment but won him the devotion of the English public.

It was a happy pairing of interests, then, when Frederick Keel (1871-1954), head of the vocal department at the Royal College of Music and a prominent member of the Folk Song Society, set three poems from Masefield’s Salt Water Ballads (1902) to music and published them in 1919. Port of Many Ships captures well the minor-mode merriment of the sea shanty genre. Trade Winds, pictorially evocative of the pleasant breezes experienced on a long sea voyage, is one of Keel’s most popular songs. Mother Carey describes the cruel supernatural figure who is responsible for the fearsome storms that sailors encounter, along with her husband Davy Jones, whose ‘locker’ is the bottom of the sea.

Jacques Ibert
Chansons de Don Quichotte

In 1932, Jacques Ibert was approached to write film music for a cinematic treatment of the Don Quixote story, with the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role. The four songs that he composed for the film exude a distinctly Spanish character in the wailing flourishes of flamenco emotionalism of the vocal part and in the frequent imitation of guitar figuration in the piano accompaniment. Don Quixote is the first-person speaker in all four scenes of the collection, the first a setting of a poem by the French poet Pierre Ronsard (1523-1585), the remaining three settings of more modern poems by Alexandre Arnoux (1884-1973).

The Chanson du départ de Don Quichotte describes, in symbolic terms, the noble motives that drive Don Quixote to venture out on his journey. His love of chivalric honour, as described in the many fantastical medieval romances he has read, finds him fixated on a sturdy castle, symbolic of knightly virtue and manly valour. The Chanson à Dulcinée is his song of devotion to the love of his life. The Chanson du Duc sees him fantasizing with considerable swagger over the ideal kind of ladylove that would be suitable for a knight such as himself. The last song, the Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte, has him bidding a noble farewell to his devoted companion, Sancho Panza.

Bryan Davies
A Medley of Welsh Folksongs

Bryan Davies (1934–2011), son of a coal miner, and student of Vaughn Williams, Aram Khachaturian, Vlado Perlemutter and Aaron Copland, is one of the most remarkable musicians that Wales has produced. A consummate pianist, he served as accompanist to many of the world’s leading opera singers, and as a vocal and instrumental coach speeded generations of young musicians on to professional careers on the stage. A prolific arranger, he is particularly remembered for his contributions to the repertoire of the Welsh male choir. In 2004 and 2005 he performed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland accompanying Bryn Terfel, with whom he was very close.

In his last days he was delighted to receive a call to his hospital room from New York. It was Mr. Terfel, who sang to him over the phone. His eyes twinkled when a fellow patient from the next bed over was remarked: “That boy’s got a voice. He should go on X Factor.”

Robert Schumann
Belsatzar Op. 57
Zwei Venezianische

Lieder Belsatzar is a retelling by the German poet Heinrich Heine of the Biblical tale of Belshazzar, the dissolute son of Nebuchadnezzar, who is justly struck down by the vengeful hand of God after a night of blasphemous revels. Heine’s poem is structured as a ballad that unfolds at a breathless pace in rhyming couplets, each giving us a single image in the rapid-fire slide-show of the narrative.

Schumann sets the poem as an accelerating storm of musical images that reach their climax with the appearance of a mysterious hand that writes a fiery message on the wall. The atmosphere of unbridled revelry and feverish celebration is created largely by the exceptionally dense swirl of piano figuration, more reminiscent of the composer’s solo piano works than of a typical song accompaniment. All the more dramatic, then, is the manner in which the work ends, with the hushed piano a frightened onlooker to the stunned horror of the voice’s recitative.

A much brighter mood emanates from Zwei Venetianische Lieder (Two Venetian Songs) from the collection entitled Myrthen (Myrtles), which Schumann presented to his wife Clara in the year they were married, 1840. (The aromatic flowers of the myrtle were traditionally considered sacred to Venus and often used to make bridal wreaths.) In Leis’ rudern hier (Row gently here) the singer bids his gondolier to row softly as they approach the balcony of his beloved. Wenn durch die Piazzetta is set during the Carnival season when, disguised as a simple boatman, the singer-lover promises to sweep his beloved off over the Lagoon.

Franz Schubert
Five Lieder

The German art song, or Lied, is virtually the creation of Franz Schubert alone. From his first essays in the form in 1814 till his death in 1828 he produced an astonishing variety of works for solo voice and piano, over 600 in all, that brought a new vividness and immediacy of expression to musical settings of lyric and narrative poetry. His range of poetic interests was wide, as reflected in this selection of lieder from the middle and end of his career.

Schubert’s setting of Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Group from Tartarus) by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) exemplifies well the power of his pictorial imagination. Tartarus is the underworld zone of eternal torment in Greek mythology. The muffled groans of the suffering undead are evoked by the piano in Dantesque rumbles of chromatic tremolos, while the vocal line wanders in a steady succession of chromatic intervals, virtually destroying any sense of key—a musical representation of the hopeless bewilderment of these denizens of deep despair.

Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) is from Schwanengesang, a collection of songs published after Schubert’s death, and is diametrically opposite in mood. Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.

The subtle ironies of Heinrich Heine’s Das Fischermädchen (The Fisher Maiden) are well observed in Schubert’s setting of this poem, also from Schwanengesang. With its gently rocking rhythm it both proclaims the innocence of the young man and imitates the action of the young fisher maiden as she rows ashore. Inviting her to trade the dangers of “the turbulent sea” for the oceanic depths hidden within his equally turbulent heart, he offers a curious proposal: to exchange known risks for unknown pleasures.

The flickering major-minor inflections in the impromptu-like piano accompaniment of Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To Be Sung Upon the Waters) convey with admirable poetic clarity the flecks of sunlight glinting from the waves around the singer-protagonist in his boat. The strophic repetitions in this song fit perfectly with the message of timeless psychological drifting while in the embrace of Nature.

Finally, in Die Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) from Schwanengesang we have another love-message song, but the messenger this time is a carrier pigeon who acts as an aviary postal go-between for two young people in love. The buoyant optimism and lovestruck cheerfulness of the young man is perfectly conveyed by the infectious rhythm of the piano accompaniment, with its pert little off-beat accents and coy Viennese lilt.

Donald G. Gíslason

 

Program Notes: Schubertiade Performance Three

Sonata in A major D959

Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was one of three written in the summer of 1828, just months before his death. This is a pianistically challenging work of unusually wide emotional range. Its moods run the gamut from the heroic to the playful, featuring outbursts of musical vehemence that alternate with moments of poetic reflection. This span of emotional states is at its widest in the slow movement which constitutes the dramatic centrepiece of the sonata.

The Allegro opens with an assertive theme featuring a climbing bass pattern beneath an immovable treble, musically emblematic of firm resolve and inner strength of character. No sooner has this theme been stated than Schubert begins to vary it, giving in to a penchant for immediate development that will dominate the exposition of this movement. His second theme is a simple, soothing melody that also finds itself wandering into developmental territory, thanks to a chromatically rising bass line figure with fugal aspirations that keeps interrupting the proceedings. The real development section, by contrast, is a chiming music box of steadily pulsing harmony chords shadowing the lyrical second theme as it wanders through an enchanted forest of harmonic modulations. The recapitulation is unremarkable except for its thoughtful coda and the poetic washes of harmonic colour with which it ends.

The Andantino second movement begins as a sad little barcarolle rocking mournfully on the waters of its own interior reflections. Its shockingly spare texture and fretful obsession with the same few notes gives a hypnotic quality to its melodic self-absorption. After some 70 bars of harmonic stasis in the key of F-sharp minor it drifts into a fantasy world, as rhythmically free and melodically wide-ranging as the opening section was monotonously repetitive and claustrophobically contained in scope. Musical violence, of a sort unprecedented in Schubert’s previous piano works, then rages forth to create the image of a terrifying hallucination, or a bad drug trip. Calm returns when the sad opening tune reappears, shadowed now with a pathetic echo in the treble above.

The following scherzo, Allegro vivace, is an acrobatic tour de force of register hops that mixes the dancelike character and graceful charm of a Chopin waltz with a mischievous sense of fun most evident in the cascading runs that unexpectedly interrupt the proceedings at regular intervals. The trio, however, is, on its best behaviour, the soul of harmonic stability. But perhaps this civility is only tongue-in-cheek, its gentle hand-crossings a witty parody of the register hops of the main section of the scherzo.

The opening theme of the fourth movement sonata rondo sounds like a solemn processional hymn from a previous age, and indeed in harmonic layout and dignity of tone it echoes the well-known St. Anthony Chorale attributed to Haydn. In this context, its subsequent elaboration in florid counterpoint, with the melody in the tenor, comes as no surprise. The second theme, however, is a songful pianistic creation that delights in the rhythmic bounce of its repeated notes. Schubert’s inventiveness in creating ear-tickling piano textures is extraordinary in this movement. Extraordinary as well is the dramatic series of chords that echo the harmonies of the first movement’s opening bars.

Schwanengesang D957

Schwanengesang (Swan Song) is not a song cycle, as it lacks a narrative thread, but rather a song collection, composed by Schubert just before his death in 1828 and put on sale under this name the following year by his publisher, Thomas Haslinger, who thought it would sell well if marketed as Schubert’s “last farewell to song.”

The collection comprises 14 songs by three contemporary German poets. The first seven songs are to poems by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), the multitalented littérateur and arch-conservative music critic famous for giving Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 sonata its title “Moonlight”. The following six are settings of poems by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a cosmopolitan poet of humour and irony who combined a light touch with an aphoristic density of thought. The final, encore song sets the words of the Austrian imperial bureaucrat Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875).

Themes of lost love and communion with nature dominate the Rellstab songs. Liebesbotschaft (Message of love) is typical, with the piano playing the role of rippling brook to the singer’s bright-eyed swain-in-love. Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s foreboding) is much less upbeat. Its piano accompaniment follows the beating of the soldier-lover’s racing heartbeat, but the opening and closing passages that frame the story, so evocative of the halting steps of a funeral march, give an undertone of worrying fatefulness to the singer’s words.

Frühlingssehnsucht (Spring longing) paints the breathless enthusiasm of the love-besotted singer who pauses, almost comically, at the end of each verse to ask himself a question. Ständchen (Serenade) is one of Schubert’s best-known melodies, evocative of the stillness of the night and the lover’s heightened awareness of the sounds of nature that surround him. The throbbing piano pulses of Aufenthalt (Resting place) paint the natural world as less distant, more a participant in the lover’s sufferings.

Even more desolate is the mood of In der Ferne (In the distance), with its theme of exile conveyed through a sparseness of texture and the obsessive repetition of melodic phrases. The Rellstab set concludes with Abschied (Farewell), an upbeat evocation of trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of the lover’s mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.

The poems of Heinrich Heine, many of them concerned with the theme of alienation, are much more compact, and pack a bigger poetic punch. Der Atlas (Atlas) receives the heavy treatment its theme deserves. The lament of the god-man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders is admirably conveyed by the pervasive use of dotted rhythms and by setting the piano accompaniment in the low range of the keyboard. Much more spare in texture is Ihr Bild (Her picture), in which the concentrated gaze of the lover upon his beloved’s portrait is evoked in unison passages between voice and piano.

Schubert`s little sea-shanty setting of Das Fischermädchen captures well the irony of the role-reversal inherent in the scene, in which it is the “sensitive New Age guy” who sits dreamily on the shore, trying to entice the strong, capable girl out earning a living on the waves to come be with him. A much more seriously poetic watery scene is summoned up in Die Stadt (The town), with its shimmering depiction of the morning sun glinting off the waves, a counterpoint to the dark distant outlines of the town where the singer’s pain originated.

The mood turns spooky in Am Meer (By the sea), a description of the debilitating effects of love, with tears as the deadly poison that rots away the lover from the inside. Despite the hymn-like reverence of the peaceful seaside scene where the tale begins, much deeper currents of emotion emerge, urged into the open by melodramatic tremolos in the piano that tell a different story. Scariest of all is Der Doppelganger (The ghostly double), a night scene in which a man stands before the house where his love once lived and recognizes a spectral shape equally absorbed in sad remembrance: an image of himself. The impassive, slow-moving chords in the piano give no comfort at all to the lonely voice of the singer as he realizes he is descending into madness. This is a song without a melody, symbolic of a situation without hope.

This song collection ends on a note of optimism, however, with Die Taubenpost (The carrier pigeon), a song with a gentle Viennese lilt that merrily praises the contributions of aviary postal delivery to the cause of true love.

Donald G. Gíslason

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