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

Felix Mendelssohn
Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Schumann
3 Romances Op. 94

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

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

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

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

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

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anton Webern
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 
11

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

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

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

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

 

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata in G minor Op. 65

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: 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: 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: Maximilian Hornung & Benjamin Engeli

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102

Long before Martha Stewart made middle-class home furnishings a “thing,” the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) ushered in a bourgeois age of cozy home interiors that celebrated domestic family life and gave music a prominent place within it. Biedermeier Europe enjoyed the blessings of peace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 much as the Eisenhower era did in North America after WWII. But instead of washers, dryers, and TV sets, the European ‘mod con’ most in demand was the piano, an instrument that afforded middle-class families the luxury of home music-making once reserved for the wealthier classes.

As a consequence, the market for Hausmusik (music for amateur performance by small ensembles in the home) expanded considerably. This market had its peaks of refinement in the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn, and its valleys of vulgarity in the variations and potpourris of lesser composers, as annoyingly popular in Biedermeier drawing rooms as YouTube cat videos on computer screens today.

Robert Schumann, after spending the 1830s composing solo piano music exclusively, made up for lost time at the end of the 1840s with a bumper crop of Hausmusik including his Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano. The simple “popular style” (Volkston) of these pieces is evident in their simple three-part (A-B-A) form, their strongly profiled melodies with little emphasis on development, and in their prominent use of drone tones in the bass.

Schumann was not engaged in a form of musical “slumming” by evoking the musical idiom of the rural countryside. This was not Dolly Parton arranged for chamber ensemble. For him, the folk music of a nation was emblematic of its very soul, providing a bulwark against the cheapening of musical taste that “fashionable” music threatened to enact on an unschooled public. Hence, the codas of these pieces reveal flashes of sophistication that see them end more artfully than they began.

The first is entitled Vanitas vanitatum (from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) and is likely a humorous depiction of the drunken one-legged soldier in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. It has a heavy peasant swing to it but, like many an engaging tippler, is not without occasional touches of sly whimsy.

The drowsy second piece may make you yawn. Its long-held bass drone foreshadows Brahms’ famous lullaby. The third begins with an aura of mystery, its ‘sombre waltz’ opening yielding to more lyrical effusions remarkable for the high register of the cello in which they are set, and for the use of double stops in 6ths.

The fourth piece alternates between a nostril-expanding march and an equally breast-swelling lyricism while the fifth, the least ‘amateur’ and most developed of the set, pairs a piano part full of scampering double thirds with a wide-ranging and restless cello line of steely determination and wilful exuberance.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69

The furrowed brow of care is nowhere to be found in this remarkably sunny and serenely confident sonata from Beethoven’s middle period. Composed between 1806 and 1808, it overlaps the composer’s work on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies yet evinces none of the disruptive tumult of the celebrated C minor Symphony nor the wondrous, walk-in-the-woods pictorialism of the Pastorale. It seems perfectly content to live in its own world, a world characterized by an almost Mozartean sense of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

Consider the opening. A rhythmically tranquil theme, beginning with a rising 5th, is presented by the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, its balanced mix of open and stepwise intervals symmetrically arranged on either side of the home-key note of A. This gesture then finds the perfect continuation of its thoughts in the luxuriantly relaxed and songful reply of the piano that drifts as high in its register as the cello ended low.

The second theme of the movement is similarly tongue-in-groove with the aforementioned, being a mirror image of the opening theme, inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. And throughout it all, cello and piano bask in a honeymoon of mutual admiration and support, even when touring through quite a bit of minor-mode drama and Italian-style pathos in the development section.

The second movement scherzo makes up for the first movement’s overall stability of pulse with a serving of jumpy syncopations and offbeat accents, enlivened by a large helping of contrapuntal side-chatter and imitative cross-talk. The two appearances of the movement’s much-less-skittish trio provide a measure of relief from the twitching, but in the end, even they get caught up in the general mêlée.

The third movement Adagio cantabile holds more surprises in store, however. Like a marathon runner who smiles at the press at the starting gun and then, after rounding the first turn, takes a cab to the finish line, this movement calls it quits after a mere 18 bars of lyrical reflection, proceeding directly to the last movement.

Cellist Leonard Rose thought this regrettable, but Glenn Gould saw it as part of an emerging pattern in Beethoven’s later works: a tendency to break down the walls between movements, to write sonatas as a single continuous thought:

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

Whatever the reason, the Allegro vivace last movement, in sonata form, is as toe- tapping a finale as could be imagined, its chuckling good humour kept bubbling by an almost constant 8th-note patter in the piano. And because this sonata lives in a thematic hall of mirrors, its main theme is an inversion of the piano’s delicious opening phrase in the first movement.

 

Leoš Janáček
Pohádka for Cello and Piano

Leoš Janáček is a one-off in music history. His is a voice of visionary ecstatic utterances, of mysterious murmurings evoking the folk music of his Moravian heritage, all tinged with the blurry soft hum of its favourite instrument, the cimbalom. As American conductor Kenneth Woods puts it:

Janáček comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janáček that sounds like his. His music is infinitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.

Janáček was fascinated by the study of speech rhythms and his music, while often misty and atmospheric, is strongly imprinted with the rhythm of the human voice. Utterly indifferent to the compositional conventions of his time, he creates his textures out of short bursts of melody that shimmer with sudden changes of modal colouring. These build to powerful emotional climaxes by the repetition of ostinato fragments that rarely seem to start on the strong beats of the bar.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano dates from 1910, and after numerous revisions, reached its final form in 1923. Like much of his instrumental music, this three-movement work is programmatic, loosely based on scenes from The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).

While the story is long and convoluted, the gist is that the handsome young Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, has had his soul promised to the King of the Underworld, Kashchei, but on mature consideration decides that he would much rather run away with the grumpy King’s fetching young daughter, Maria, a decision which leads to an adventure-filled chase over hill and dale until the two lovers finally reach safety and live happily ever after.

Just how Janáček’s score relates to the events of the tale is not really clear, but many interpreters see the cello in the role of the young prince, with his signature dotted- rhythm motif announced at the outset, and the piano as Maria. Steven Isserlis offers a very suggestive version of how the music illustrates the story, as follows.

The first movement, he says, opens with the dreamy setting of a magical lake where Ivan and Maria first meet. Enraptured by each other’s company, they fall into a love duet, but then big bad Kashchei arrives and they have to escape to the pounding of horses’ hooves.

The second movement is full of magic. In a nearby palace Ivan gets a spell put on him so he will fall in love with someone else and in a fit of pique Maria turns into a blue flower, prompting an achingly lyrical outpouring in the middle section. But a magician who does house calls finally releases them both and they rejoice in their good fortune in each other’s arms throughout the final movement.

 

Richard Strauss
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 6

While some people’s children are perfectly content to play in the mud for as long as the sun shines each day, taking only small breaks to tip over a vase or torture the household cat, others—the young Richard Strauss comes instantly to mind—prefer to while away their infant hours composing German lieder or small character pieces for piano, commensurate with their limited handspan on the keyboard.

To say that the composer of Til Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier was a prodigy is to state the obvious. Reportedly able to read musical scores before he could decipher the alphabet, Richard Strauss began his ‘mature’ period as a composer at an age when most of us were preparing for the high school prom. His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6 was begun when he was only 17 and completed two years later in 1883.

It is a radiantly confident work marked by boundless exuberance, passionate lyrical intensity, and no mean degree of compositional skill, its phrases driven forward with an irresistible harmonic momentum, parcelled out with consummate formal mastery. The cellist encounters a score extending over the entire range of his instrument while any pianist with a hand smaller than a catcher’s mitt will need to arpeggiate many of the work’s Brahmsian left-hand chords.

The first movement Allegro con brio opens the work with a heroic introduction leading to a first theme of rhapsodic sweep beginning high on the fingerboard over an undulating piano accompaniment, and this is followed by a sombre second theme, just as passionate, rising up from the lowest string. The development section percolates along, bubbling with imitative motivic play, until unable to hold off the urge to burst into a full-on fugato. Call this boy a show-off if you will, but he sure can write imitative counterpoint.

The second movement Andante ma non troppo is a richly hued but dark collection of ruminative melodies over which the lyrical spirit of Mendelssohn hovers benevolently, as it does over the Allegro vivo finale, with its mixture of coy drawing-room coquettishness and scherzo scamper.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 2

Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Wo046

Beethoven’s second set of cello and piano variations on a tune derived from Mozart’s Magic Flute was composed in 1801, five years after his previous Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen variations of 1796. In this set, Beethoven picks another simple folk-like tune, a duet between Pamina, who has just learned that Tamino loves her, and Papageno, who laments that he can’t even get a Friday-night date. Despite this difference in their amatory status, there is one thing they can both agree on in song, and that is that “Love sure is grand, isn’t it?”

The original form of the duet – with each singer presenting the tune separately, then both singing together – is preserved in the variations that follow. Of course, when you are ‘covering’ a Mozart tune, the bar for wit and elegance is set rather high. So Beethoven is on his best behaviour here, combining the twin virtues of contrapuntal ingenuity and textural variety in the best Austrian tradition. Thus, while fulfilling the formal expectations of the genre – figural ornament, a variation in the minor mode, a lyrical adagio preceding a toe- tapping finale – he makes sure that each variation is as different as possible from its neighbours, by giving each a distinct rhythmic and textural profile.

A good example is the first variation, which treats the theme like chopped liver, doling it out in punchy little rhythmic chunks and leaving you dazzled by a musical mosaic that echoes the opening four-note motive in virtually every bar. Variation 2 can’t get enough of runs while Variation 3 sings the praises of the melodic ornament known as the turn. Variation 4, the inevitable minore, takes a walk on the dark side in the unusual key of E flat minor to offer a portrait of psychological fragility and lyrical introspection. Here is where the cello gets to unburden itself emotionally in the deep bass register, accompanied by a rather spooky, bare-bones accompaniment in the piano. Variation 5 has no time
for moping and picks up the pace in a merry game of tag between the instruments. The variations reach their emotional epicentre in the lavishly ornamented and lyrical Adagio of Variation 6 before the expansive Variation 7 finale skips its way home – not without a bit of minor- mode turbulence, mind you, in its middle section.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 5 No. 2

Beethoven’s two cello sonatas of Op. 5 share many characteristics. Each, for example, has a two-movement plan comprising an introductory adagio leading directly to a sonata-form allegro, followed by a rondo finale. But if the first of the set, the cello sonata in F major, is distinctly ‘Mozartean’ in inspiration, the second in G minor is more than a little ‘Handelian,’ and understandably so.

Both were written in 1796 at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, where a production of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was on offer at the Berlin Singakademie in the same year that Beethoven visited. King Friedrich Wilhelm was a charter member of the Handel fan club who had introduced George Frederick’s oratorios to the Prussian capital. He was also a more- than-passable cellist to boot, having been taught while still a princeling-in-short-pants by the virtuoso court cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818), for whom the Op. 5 sonatas were written. What more attractive model could he adopt for a sonata to be performed by Duport himself in front of the King?

What Beethoven admired most in Handel was his ability to evoke an emotion, or construct an entire dramatic scene, out of the merest scrap of a motive, such as the three-note descending phrase that occurs so often in Judas Maccabaeus. Angus Watson finds that this motive structures much of the melodic material in Beethoven’s G minor sonata, as well. But more telling still is Beethoven’s pervasive use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms in the sonata’s opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, in clear imitation of the French overture (also in G minor) that begins Handel’s oratorio.

Despite its mere two movements, there is nothing small-scale about this sonata. Beethoven’s austere and pathos-filled Adagio, dominated by a descending scale pattern and marked by many dramatic pauses, is just one of the ways in which Beethoven adds structural heft to its first movement. The exposition of the immediately following sonata-form movement virtually overflows with melodic ideas: there are two in its first theme group and two in its second, while the development section erupts with an intensity of emotion and virtuosity of piano writing that hint at Beethoven’s mature ‘heroic’ style. Capping off the first movement is a coda in which Beethoven lets his instrumentalists mull over what they have just played for the last time before the movement ends, grimly and grudgingly, with a stiffly Baroque tierce de Picardie in G major.

After all that heavy drama, Beethoven serves up a good-natured rondo finale with a sturdy opening refrain of small range that manages to thump and twinkle in turn. With a repetitive structure playfully phrased in alternating fragments of forte and piano, it drums its way into your head to become the most memorable melody of the movement. The intervening episodes, and even the refrain theme itself are continually developed and varied – sometimes cast in the minor mode, sometimes with the instruments chasing each other in canon – as if in a sonata movement. This finale simply overflows with rhythmic vitality, due to a near-constant chatter of rapid passagework on the part of both piano and cello.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in C major Op. 102 No. 1

At Op. 102 we have arrived at ‘late’ Beethoven, a period in the composer’s life in which his deafness left him alone to dream in a sonic world all his own where he expressed his musical thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the wilful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.

The first of the Op. 102 sonatas is in two movements, like the sonatas for cello and piano of Op. 5, but in this work each movement begins with a slow introduction, or rather a free fantasy. The dreamy and meditative theme announced teneramente by the solo cello gives out in its first bar the main motives – a stepwise descent of a 4th followed by a stepwise ascent of the same interval – that will recur throughout the work as a whole. With the indication dolce cantabile, this Andante introduction is a virtual love-duet between the two instruments, that sing together in 3rds, or echo back to each other their billing and cooing, in a placid C major.

All the more is the surprise, then, when the Allegro arrives with an aggressive theme in octaves and unisons between cello and piano, in A minor. This theme has an urgent, restless quality that dominates the rest of the movement, but seems ‘misshapen’ somehow, with its sudden downward leap and awkward run-up ornament at the end of the phrase. All anxiety and bustle, with little time for lyrical repose, it rushes through a compressed development section and even its coda is tense and seems to end abruptly and wilfully.

The slow introduction that begins the second movement is more poised and seriously reflective. The piano and cello seem at first to be in duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, then each heads in its own direction, the cello ruminating deeply in the bass while the piano seeks ever higher terrain. They are brought together when they both ‘remember’ the opening Andante theme, eventually dissolving together into a chummy triple trill.

The cheek-to-cheek rhapsodizing is interrupted, though, by the perky motive that will pervade the finale: a stepwise rising 4th. Once this movement starts, we are on psychologically healthy ground. Beethoven uses the nimble rising-4th motive in many, mostly humorous or ironic ways. One of the most ingenious is when the cello plays a drone in the bass, as if it’s slowly looking around for the piano then quickly turns around and just misses ‘tagging’ it (imitatively) with the motive. In this context the fugato that follows is anything but dead serious. Another game of tag follows later and the two instruments end the movement best of friends.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in D major Op. 102 No. 2

Beethoven’s last cello sonata presents us with a more traditional layout of three movements, widely contrasting both in compositional style and in mood. A brisk and confident sonata-form first movement is succeeded by a deeply lyrical slow movement, and the sonata ends with a fugue.

The perky fanfares that open the work – four 16th notes and a big leap – prepare us for surprises but the cello immediately strikes a more conciliatory lyrical tone and the entire exposition proceeds in spurts, alternating between forthright bravado strutting cheek by jowl at close quarters with less aggressive melodic impulses. A development section is where you expect a composer to mix things up a bit but this movement’s development section is actually where you start to feel for the first time the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic unfolding in place of the expositions’ stop-and-go pattern of delivery. This new ‘can’t we all just get along’ mood continues into a recapitulation where the gaps are filled in and the pulse remains more continuous. The harmonic wanderings
of the coda promise mystery, but then – like an adult amusing a child by hiding his face behind his hands only to spring out gleefully into full view – Beethoven steers the movement at the last moment to a resolute cadence in the home key.

What follows is the only real traditional slow movement in all the cello sonatas, a place where the cello gets to display its lyrical gifts in a pool of light at centre stage. The movement’s solemnly paced melody of even 8th notes, with a pause at the end of each phrase, suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm accompaniment it soon receives from the piano. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and with melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. Relief arrives in a middle section in the major mode that restores a happier tone to the proceedings. When the opening section returns, however, the gravity of its ominous message is reinforced by low-register rumblings in the piano, and its ‘limping tic’ has only got worse.

The last movement begins with a simple rising scale presented in turn by the cello and the piano, a musical gesture reminiscent of how a magician innocently shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. The magic trick here is that this cheerful little melodic fragment, which comes as such a break from all the eye-brow-knitting seriousness of the slow movement, is soon revealed to be the start of a right proper, ‘learned’, fugue subject. It’s as if you had just witnessed a circus clown pulling off his multi- coloured uniform to reveal a diplomat’s tie-and-tails outfit, complete with dangling medals, underneath.

This fugue subject is metrically a bit ‘off’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar, giving it ample forward momentum but without a regular rhythmic patterning. It is a theme both dainty and merry, at the same time. The merriment gets a bit crowded after a while, though, like too many people crammed into a Volkswagen, and the counterpoint gets quite gritty, leading to a traffic jam of strettos in contrary motion. When the dust settles, a less jumpy, more serene countersubject in long note values arrives at the door to lead everyone into a concluding section vibrating with trills to celebrate the newfound spirit of contrapuntal amity with which the work ends.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

Program notes: Steven Isserlis & Robert Levin — Performance 1

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on a Theme
from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus Wo0 45

In 1796 Beethoven paid a visit to the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin, and cellists the world over are glad that he did. From this visit resulted a number of works for cello and piano that set the world of between- the-knees string playing on a new path with three masterful compositions: the Variations on a Theme from Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ and the cello sonatas Op. 5 No. 1 in F major and No. 2 in G minor.

Beethoven’s reverence for Handel is well documented, and his choice of the stirring chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” for his variations might well have been prompted by a recent production of Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna organized by Baron von Swieten in 1794. His choice of the cello to pair with the piano was undoubtedly influenced by the King’s own preference for this instrument. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist and a notable patron of the arts, His Berlin court glistened with the lustre of cellists Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) and his brother Jean-Louis Duport (1749- 1819), one of whom (historians can’t decide which) collaborated with Beethoven in performing his new cello and piano works before the King.

If the theme of this set of variations sounds familiar, it might well be because you have sung it in church, as the Easter hymn “Thine Be the Glory”. The tune has a three- part A-B-A structure, with the B-section dipping briefly into the minor mode. In his variations Beethoven leaves the harmonies and phrase structure largely intact, preferring to let the dramatic narrative unfold through accelerations in tempo and alternations between solo melody and more conversational imitative textures.

A dramatic coup de théâtre arrives right away when the first variation is played by the piano … alone. This makes the audience wait till the second variation for the entrance of the cello, now cast in the role of an opera diva introduced by a long ritornello. While there is a lot of brilliant writing for the piano – Beethoven was writing for his own hand, after all – the cellist, too, gets his place in the sun as a virtuoso in the rapid-fire triplets of Variation 7.

The apogee of lyrical intensity comes in the poised and elegant Variation 11 Adagio, the longest variation of the set, with its highly ornamented melody and harp-like arpeggios in the piano. The cello lives up to its opera- diva billing in the B-section with an intense outburst of emotion worthy (and reminiscent) of Albinoni’s famous Adagio. Calculating that the the King’s toes tap better in threes, Beethoven changes the time signature to 3/8 for the final rondo-like romp that ends with a thrilling high trill in the piano before the final chords.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1

Beethoven’s two sonatas Op. 5 of 1796 signal a growth spurt in the development of the cello repertoire, as they represent the first examples of a sonata in which the cello and piano act as equal partners, neither being reduced to a simple accompaniment to the other. Previous cello and piano sonatas had featured one

of the two instruments in a ‘sidekick’ role. Either the piano played continuo in what was essentially a cello sonata, improvising harmonic side-chatter from a score consisting of no more than a figured bass, or else the cello played obbligato, reinforcing the bass line in what was really just a piano sonata with a bit more ‘oomph’ in the lower register.

The sonatas of Op. 5, with their fully written-out piano parts, are thus the founding works of the cello sonata genre such as we know it today. And what an impressive foundation they are. In the words of Steven Isserlis, these sonatas are “real concert pieces, large in scale, full of exciting effects that would have left the Berliners gasping”, while Joseph Kerman calls them “almost miniature concertos”.

The Sonata in F Op. 5 No. 1 is comprised of only two movements: an exploratory Adagio leading to a grand- scale Allegro, followed by a playful rondo finale. The opening Adagio piques the listener’s curiosity with mysterious, strangely non-committal ruminations over small melodic phrases and gestures, occasionally interrupted by passionate outbursts that predict emotional volatility in what is to follow. And yet the Allegro, when it begins, is the soul of musical propriety, much in the style of Mozart – and in this regard it is useful to remember that Mozart wrote his ‘Prussian’ quartets for this same monarch, the amateur cellist King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Particularly Mozartean are the balanced phrase units of its opening theme, the cadential trills, and cadencing patterns repeated for emphasis at major articulation points in the form.

More Beethovenian, and more ‘gasp-worthy’ are the extreme range explored by the two instruments, the emotionally charged atmosphere (especially in the development), the striking contrasts of mood and unexpected changes of harmony, as well as the extraordinarily ‘thick’ writing for the piano.

The last movement is a gentle toe-tapper of a rondo with a Haydnesque feel to it, especially noticeable in the simple playfulness of its repeated-note principal theme. The contrasting episodes are particularly intriguing: one features a darkly merry, gypsy-like tune in the minor mode while another begins with a double- stop bass drone in the cello supporting eerie harmonic explorations in the piano. The cello is put through its paces in passages replete with multi-octave arpeggios, double stops and repeated leaps, but it is the piano that dominates in the end, with the massive sonority of its rolling arpeggios in both hands at the work’s end.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations in F on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”

from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op. 66

Compared with Beethoven’s ‘Handel’ variations, his variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute are much more sharply chiselled, more widely differentiated in character, like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the complaint of Papageno, who sings of how much he is in need of female company. But he’s not fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.

After Mozart has masterfully captured in melody the uncomplicated outlook and endearing simplicity of this rural bird-catcher, Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty and one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone. The learned trappings of imitative counterpoint that interlard the stately set of ‘Handel’ variations have no place in this little musical comedy.

Like the ‘Handel’ set, the first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its division of the melody into nifty little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear – all in a comic texture in which the piano plays far below it in the bass, like a plodding basso buffo.

The work proceeds in this manner through the following variations, with a distinctly different figuration pattern or rhythmic outline defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale. To provide a modicum
of contrast to what has, so far, been a remarkably chipper succession of musical sentiments, these slow movements are both in the minor mode. The first, Variation 10, uses double-dotted rhythms to lend an air of grim fatalism to its pronouncements, very much in the style of the Commendatore’s address to Don Giovanni. The second offers the cello a chance to hold forth with a bass aria, accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano.

The time signature is changed to 3/4 in the last variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the tune with which it begins and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends sweetly and softly.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Horn Sonata in F Op. 17

Beethoven’s only horn sonata was written in short order for the celebrated horn-player Giovanni Punto (1746-1800), one of the leading exponents of the hand- stopping technique that expands the number of notes playable on the natural horn. It was performed for the first time at a concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 18 April 1800, with Beethoven at the keyboard, and later published in a version for either horn or cello.

The original scoring for horn means that when played by the cello the solo instrument will not be confined to melodic gestures idiomatic to the horn. No matter, Beethoven writes a fulsome and elaborate part for the piano, laying down a rich carpet of harmonic fill when his performing partner is holding forth in lyrical melodic fashion, and ensuring that the entire room is filled with sound when drama is needed in more intense passages.

The first movement begins with a proud, triadic horn call for the cello, answered by the most blithely innocent, naively optimistic response from the piano. You can tell, right from the start, that these two are going to get along. And get along they do in this first movement, which is remarkable for its conversational manner. By the time the second theme rolls around they are completing each other’s sentences, like an old married couple. The development section brings their collaboration to a high pitch of emotional intensity as the piano answers in the bass register the cello’s triadic horn calls while sending broken chord figures up to the Gods in the opposite direction.

The second movement carries none of the emotional weight of an extended lyrical slow movement,
being rather a palette-cleansing introduction to the concluding rondo, with the dotted rhythm of a slow march. The finale opens with the strange bedfellowing of an academic succession of staid half-notes covering large leaps but concluding with a coy scale pattern twinkling with mordents. The intervening episodes in this rondo allow the cello to shine in a lyrical solo role, and while some of this contrasting material is in the minor mode, there is never any doubt that buoyant good spirits will prevail in the end.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata in A Op. 69

The moody Beethoven of struggle and revolt is nowhere to be found in his radiantly serene Sonata in
A major Op. 69. This is Beethoven in his happy place, composing effortlessly in the mainstream manner of high Classicism, constructing melody after melody from the same basic building blocks, and roaming in carefree leisure from section to formal section as if exploring the various rooms of an interesting museum or art gallery.

Like a well-mannered child at a birthday party, he doesn’t hog all of the cake for himself but creates a perfectly balanced equilibrium between the roles of pianist and cellist (which in the Op. 5 sonatas were, admittedly, a bit skewed toward the 88-keyed side of things). He even allows the cello to begin the work, with the piano only entering the conversation once its colleague has finished presenting the solidly constructed melody that will contribute phrases and motives to the rest of the movement.

While the work as a whole is remarkable for its motivic economy, the first movement is especially so. The essential features of the first theme contribute Lego pieces not only to the construction of the following transitional passage in the minor mode (with its similar opening leap of a 5th), but also to the calm, measured pace of the second theme, so similar to that of the first. And because an atmosphere of sweetness and light can be cloying after a while, in the development section he transforms this theme into an outpouring of minor-mode pathos in the Italian manner before unleashing a stream of four-string arpeggios in the cello against equally stirring tremolo figures in the piano. The recapitulation is a shortened version of the exposition, but is extended by a coda that pensively lingers over motivic memories of the movement’s major moments.

The second movement scherzo is an elegantly playful game of ‘Where’s the beat?’ with syncopations poking you in the shoulder with such wilful insistence that you could easily lose track of the rhythmic thread. Measured relief comes (twice!) in the more stable trio sections, introduced by double stops in the cello.

Beethoven is having far too much fun to indulge in an intensely operatic slow movement, with all the dramatic contrasts that would involve, so he contents himself with a scant few phrases of lyrical reflection before moving on to his finale. This last movement, in sonata- form, splits its attention between a bustling first theme and a more poised, ‘stop-to-smell-the-roses’ second theme, with a few chromatic twists and turns in the development section to add a hedge-maze piquancy to its harmonic unfolding.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015

 

 

 

 

Program notes: Doric String Quartet

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2

Those of us wondering in our spare moments what a happy retirement consists of might do well to consider the case of one Franz Joseph Haydn, whose life in the years 1796-97, when his collection of six string quartets Op. 76 was written, offers a model of retired bliss. The period of the 1790s saw Haydn’s official career as an active court composer for the Esterhazy family drawing to a close and his status as an international musical celebrity take flight in earnest. After two tours of England (1791-92 and 1794-95), he returned to Vienna a wealthy man, free to compose whatever he wished, whenever he wished, and his writing for string quartet bears the marks of this newfound personal liberty.

The six quartets of Op. 76 are widely regarded as the supreme accomplishment of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. They fulfill Goethe’s wish that a string quartet be a “civilized conversation between four independent personalities.” And yet they are more than that.

The personal stamp that Haydn put on these works prefigures tendencies which would later characterize the work of his young student, Beethoven. The first
 of these was a new level of seriousness in musical expression. No longer was Haydn’s audience presented with music of such courtesy and deference that it could easily be thrust into the background of the social setting which it graced. This was music that demanded the full concentrated attention of its listeners. Emblematic of this new seriousness was an increased use of the minor mode, a denser fabric of motives in the musical texture, and a general shifting of the centre of gravity in sonata- form movements towards the development section, where the ‘churn’ of motivic interplay dominated the proceedings.

All of these tendencies are on full display in the second of the Op. 76 quartets, nicknamed the ‘Fifths’ quartet in recognition of the intensity with which its falling fifth motive echoes throughout the first movement (occurring more than 100 times, by a rough count). Indeed, the degree to which it keeps occurring throughout the entire exposition, like a gravy boat continually passed around a table of dinner guests, has caused scholars to disagree on just where the ‘second subject’ begins, if there is one at all. And the development section only increases the density of motivic reference by adding inversions and strettos into the mix. With falling fifths ricocheting off every wall, the need to ‘re-introduce the theme’ to the listener is reduced and so the recapitulation is short, but a coda of renewed developmental vigour (also to become a Beethovenian characteristic) keeps tension high till the final emphatic chords.

A relaxed and gracious second movement, a theme 
and variations, offers an opportunity to lower the 
blood pressure somewhat. Yet within the diminutive confines of this simple theme, Haydn finds a wealth of possibilities for variety and tonal interest, dipping now and then into the minor mode and providing many a florid vamp at the top of the texture for the first violin. Attentive listeners will also notice a few sly references to the first movement’s falling fifths.

The third movement Minuetto returns to the minor mode, which along with Haydn’s use of severe contrapuntal procedure (its outer sections being in strict two-voice canon), has earned this movement
its own nickname: the Witch’s Canon. Who knew that witches were so learned? The austerely elegant minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 provides an interesting precedent for such an intensely contrapuntal, minor-mode take on this courtly dance. But then again, it might well be that Haydn is simply sending up the genre rather than offering a demonic variant of it.

The trio provides much needed relief in the major mode, but brings playful surprises of its own in the form of
a clock-like tick-tocking, as rhythmically rigid as the framing opening and closing sections are melodically severe, and an almost gypsy-like alternation between the major and minor mode.

All pretense of gravitas is abandoned in the last movement, however, which unfolds in a rollicking sonata-form movement with many a coy pause along the way. Even the minor mode has lost its tragic edge here in favour of a Mendelssohnian-style merry scamper that finally comes out of the closet to end the work in a bright and buoyant D major.

 

THOMAS ADÈS
The Four Quarters Op. 28

The multi-award-winning British composer, pianist
 and conductor Thomas Adès is a towering figure in contemporary music. A major factor in his success is that despite the modernity of his musical language, he writes from inside, and from well inside, the classical tradition, always anchoring his listener’s attention in some element of the aurally familiar. One finds within his works clearly defined melodies walking abreast with lively contrapuntal side-chatter. Musical connoisseurs will raise an eyebrow of discerning interest to discover canons and ostinati pulsing within his most embroiled textures, even while their toes prove unable to resist tapping in the face of repeated rhythmic invitations to the dance.

And he writes in the traditional genres of the classical canon. His list of works includes operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo piano,
and choral anthems. His sonorities, moreover, are full and resonant but, like those of Stravinsky, elegantly transparent and easy to ‘parse’ in the ear.

One never has the suspicion, when listening to his music, that he is trying to evoke the sound of an SUV driven, in tragic error, through the plate glass window of a Tim Horton’s, or to broadcast the unfiltered sonic output of radio waves received from deep space by the Hubble telescope. These things Mr. Adès does not attempt. And a grateful world thanks him for his restraint.

The crowning virtue of his compositional creed is that he composes entirely for natural instruments, without resorting to the sort of electronic gadgetry and digital trickery that have become such a blight upon the aural landscape of our time. He seeks to ‘update’ (to use his term) traditional music-making, not destroy it, nor supplant it with technology. When in need of new orchestral sounds, for example, he prefers to have his musicians scrub a washboard, rattle a bag of metal knives and forks, or lower a vibrating gong into a bowl of water rather than have them twiddle a dial, tap an electric foot-pedal, or slouch over a laptop as if absorbed in a computer game.

The Four Quarters was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered there by the Emerson Quartet in March 2011. The work takes as its subject the passage of time during a 24-hour period, with each of its four movements, or ‘quarters’, evoking a distinct time of day.

We start our journey in the late evening with a movement entitled Nightfalls, a curious plural of mysterious import. The sound of the strings, played at the opening without vibrato, is as raw as the night is dark. While the mood is meditative to begin with, the sudden dramatic contrasts of loud and soft that follow hint at the unsettling presence of things that go bump in the night.

The second movement Serenade: Morning Dew suggests in its opening pizzicato section the arrival of water droplets on the fronds and leafy limbs of outdoor plant life, and hints in its bowed sections at the glints of sunlight arriving with the dawn of a new day.

Days, another curious title in the plural, brings us to noon and beyond. Largely structured around a syncopated ostinato rife with repeated notes in the second violin, it builds to a climax in which all instruments play in unison before trailing off as they head their separate ways.

The Twenty-Fifth Hour is an impossible time of day, a fact given whimsical acknowledgement in its almost- impossible time signature: 25/16, which is divided up into repeating sections of 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. The simple dance-like quality with which it begins belies the treacherous difficulty of the alternating harmonics and stopped notes that generate its ‘yodeling’ timbral charm. The movement churns to its conclusion in the second half over throbbing sustained double-stops in the cello that nudge the increasingly acquiescent and peaceable musings of its non-knee-held colleagues ebbing towards a soft but nonetheless shocking (for contemporary music) conclusion: a major chord.

 

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130

Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, written in 1825, is a massive work comprising six movements and lasting
a good three quarters of an hour. It is also considered one of the most head-scratching, enigmatic works in the classical canon, one that has baffled musicologists and music theorists to this day.

The aspect of the work most responsible for uniting fingernail to hair follicle in a scratching motion is the last movement, the so-called ‘Great Fugue,’ a work of such formal extravagance that it moved Beethoven’s publisher to tactfully suggest that the composer might wish to replace it with something a tad more … digestible. Which he did, in fact, writing a traditional finale for the first publication of the quartet in 1826 and leaving the original Grosse Fuge to be published separately as his Op. 133.

This evening, however, the work is being performed according to its original conception and there is much to recommend this decision. For all its small-scale difficulties (the bizarre dynamic markings, changes in metre and abrupt changes in tone and mood) the large- scale shape of this work, as originally conceived, is clear. While it may be a hard nut to crack, the nut is clearly divided into an intellectually engaging outer ‘shell’ (the first and last movements) and a meaty inner ‘core’ of rewarding musical ‘nuggets’ (the four movements in between).

The two outer movements are really musical hybrids, ‘fantasies’ masquerading as more serious musical forms: the first movement is in ‘sonata drag’ while the last is
a fugue at a masked ball, changing masks faster than a flirt changes dance partners. These outer movements are colourfully ‘contrasty’ (to use Joseph Kerman’s term) while the four inner movements are remarkably uniform, each picking a single mood and sticking with
it. The outer movements flash with the dazzling charm of the fast card trick while the inner movements grab the heart in an ever-closer embrace of simple nourishing emotion.

It’s quite a ride, this quartet. So here is your dance card.

The first movement begins with a question of musical etiquette. The slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement as used, for example, in Haydn’s Symphonies 101 and 104, or Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 7, is meant to ease you gently and solemnly into the sound world of the piece you are about to hear, which normally takes off like a scalded cat once this introductory function is fulfilled. It’s like an usher who shows you ceremonially to your seat and then leaves you to enjoy your evening’s entertainment, never to be heard from again. Said usher is not expected to sit down beside you and interrupt every time a stray thought enters his head.

And yet, that is just what the slow introduction to this movement does. No sooner have you left behind the tender musings that open the work, and you start to follow the spiffy tumbling 16th-note figures of the movement’s first subject, than the slow introduction pops up again after a few bars to say ‘You know, I was just thinking …’ and then promptly disappears again. Very odd. Anyone who has sat beside a talkative stranger of questionable marble-count on public transit will know just how awkward these situations can quickly become.

But no matter, the exposition finally gets underway in earnest with a vigorously pursued agenda of constantly chattering 16ths which finally give way to a slower, more vocally-inspired second subject in longer note values. At the traditional repeat of the exposition, however, up pops your slow-introduction usher again to show you to your seat (the one you are already occupying) as if the two of you had never met. Within the frame
of expectations of the sonata-consuming public, it all seems like some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, an impression reinforced when the slow introduction returns to seat you yet a third time for the development section.

By now, however, this is the least of your problems. The development section that follows is one of Beethoven’s strangest. A ‘development’ is normally the place where all the musical washing is done as the preceding thematic material is sudsed up right proper and put through the contrapuntal wringer. But this development section is the least active segment of the whole movement, seeming more like an eerie moonwalk of trance-like calm, numbly self-absorbed in its own obsessive rocking rhythm.

And yet a perfectly normal recapitulation sets you back on familiar ground. But just as things are
drawing to a close, here once again comes the slow introduction interrupting every effort to keep the music moving forward, until finally cooler heads prevail and the musical conversation comes to a rousing conclusion.

All this might seem the height of musical impudence, but Beethoven has done this before, in one of his earliest works. His Pathétique Sonata in C minor,
Op. 13, features a slow introduction that occurs, and interrupts, in exactly the same three places within 
the first movement. A new twist on an old trick? It is quite possible that Beethoven, in melding the sectional surprises of the ‘fantasy’ genre onto the staid moorings and weight-bearing architecture of the traditional sonata, is having just a wee bit of fun here, playing peek-a-boo from behind the pillars of this musical structure, as it were, in the style of his teacher Haydn, the pranksterish inventor of the ‘false recapitulation’.

The much more straightforward inner movements begin with a furtively whispered Presto that gives every indication of wanting to be a full-on scherzo in ternary form, but its ‘trio’ middle section provides little by way of contrast. Despite its minor-mode seriousness and breathless heartbeat rhythm, the mood is more determined than grim, yet even that may be just a pose. Its quick, double-hairpin dynamic markings add a humorous ‘leering’ quality to the phrasing that the written-out glissandos in the 1st violin almost push to an open giggle of glee.

The charm offensive begins in earnest in the 3rd movement Andante, where we find ourselves more than halfway to the Viennese whipped cream that Brahms serves up in his most sumptuous slow movements. The wonderfully unbuttoned easy-breathing melody that begins in the viola and then
is taken up by the 1st violin evokes a pleasant walk in the park, the walking pace reinforced by a constant metronomic tick-tock in the accompaniment. The occasional jarring note squealed out by the 1st violin, as if someone had just pinched his bottom, reveals, perhaps, the meaning of the indication Poco scherzoso at the beginning of the movement.

The 4th movement Alla tedesca takes lilting to a whole new level in its ever more sophisticated textural treatments and melodic variations of a nostalgically simple tune, reminiscent of a waltz. Its charm is such that if there is one tune you will be found humming
in the shower tomorrow, it’s this one. A little game of ‘Who’s got the theme?’ arrives at the end, with each instrument taking a single bar of the tune (and not even in the right order) to round out the movement on a note of wit and whimsy.

We arrive at the warm beating heart of this quartet in its 5th movement, the operatically named Cavatina, and what a wellspring of operatic emotion it is. You can easily visualize the scene, with a single pensive character inhabiting a pool of light in the middle of
the stage. Beethoven confessed that he could never think of this movement without weeping, and the score bears every mark of the emotion he felt: the low tessitura of the two violins, the sigh motives on first beats of the bar, the reluctance to cadence, and, above all, the unrestrained pathos of the section marked Beklemmt, in which the 1st violin breaks away to sob openly in front of its companions.

This Cavatina was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on the Golden Record placed on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, meant to convey the heights of human achievement to whatever intelligent life form might find them.

The Grosse Fuge last movement, by contrast, has seemed to many to have charted the opposite path, arriving to us on earth from somewhere deep in outer space. Indeed, musical analysts with cranial cavities considerably larger than that of the present writer have spent many an hour that could more profitably have been spent sorting laundry in an attempt to understand what are referred to as the ‘problems of continuity’ in this movement, as if its overall form constituted some sort of compositional speech impediment that needed to be excused or explained.

Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this movement, in all dimensions, that so baffles the musical pundits. Was the great composer responding to an inner voice asking: “Would you like to supersize that fugue?” The movement occupies fully one third of the quartet’s entire length, and its range of expression is nothing if not extreme, with dramatically large leaps peppering the melodic outline of its fugue subject, and dynamic indications such as ff, f and sf profusely scattered throughout the score, sometimes on every beat for pages on end.

Worse still, the question of musical etiquette posed
in the first movement seems to have progressed into
a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder,
given the way the piece opens. There was, after all, no tradition of starting a fugue with a slow introduction, or an introduction of any kind whatsoever. And yet
as the finale opens (under the grandiose name of Overtura) we are served up a series of short thematic statements, each abandoned immediately after a single phrase, like someone changing TV channels with the remote every 5 or 6 seconds. Each short phrase is in a different rhythm, and has a different character.

First comes (a) a bold, strident declaration in half notes comprising an odd mix of gaping intervals and stepwise motion, ending in a trill, then (b) an almost flippant, skippy-dippy version of the same melodic intervals, but in a triplet rhythm, then (c) a more soothing placid variant of these, then (d) the same melodic intervals again, chopped up and separated by rests, before the arrival of (e) a jagged-edged, wildly leaping fugue theme, using the ‘chopped up’ theme as its countersubject.

Has Beethoven gone barking mad? Crazy like a fox, I would say. When starting out on a movement of such breathtaking length, what better way to prepare the listener for the arduous road ahead than to provide a ‘table of contents’ indicating the various transforms of the theme to be encountered along the way?

In writing this ‘fugal fantasy’ Beethoven not only treats his material according to standard fugal procedures (stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc.), he combines these with the processes of sonata development, as well, creating as wildly different versions of his melodic material as he can devise, and announcing the major variants at the outset. Then, just as he did in the Fifth Symphony, he proceeds in the course of the movement to delete notes from his theme to make it splinter into shorter and shorter fragments, until finally the texture is reduced to a series of duelling trills, like two dogs snarling at each other in a dispute over a bone.

The result is an uninhibited virtuosic display of compositional mastery, an 1812 Overture of intellectual fireworks unique in the literature of Western music.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: DANIEL MÜLLER-SCHOTT & SIMON TRPČESKI


Ludwig van Beethoven


Sonata for cello & piano in C major, Op. 102, No. 1

Those who think of sonata form as a well-organized dinner plate – with the red meat in one corner, the mashed potatoes stationed opposite, and peas or broccoli distributed neatly over the remaining space – might be forgiven for thinking that Beethoven was playing with his food in composing this sonata, so irregular are its formal outlines and so free its inner patterns of musical thought.

But there is nothing childish about it. Along with the preceding Op. 101 piano sonata, it marks the beginning
of the composer’s late period, a period in which his deafness moved him to express his thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the willful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.

The first noticeable irregularity in this sonata is that it only features two movements, each of which begins with a slow introduction. Opening a sonata movement with a slow introduction is not an innovation on Beethoven’s part: Haydn had used it at the start of his Symphony No. 103 in E♭, as had Beethoven himself in his Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13. But here its use is different. Instead of portentously building up a sense of anticipation for the section that will follow, the slow introduction of this work’s first movement seems blissfully happy to merely meditate over the main motives that will recur throughout the sonata as a whole: a series of stepwise-falling fourths and a faster stepwise ascent of the same interval, presented by the solo cello at the outset. With a dynamic marking of piano and the expressive indications teneramente, dolce cantabile, this slow introduction is a virtual love-duet between piano and cello.

The end of this cheek-to-cheek slow-dancing in the placid key of C major comes all the more suddenly, then, when the sonata movement begins in earnest – in the key of A minor, the relative minor. An opening theme in octaves and unisons between the piano and cello opens the exposition, but expends its fury after two statements, stopping abruptly to allow a musical thought of smaller range, the second theme, to intervene. This abruptness is a characteristic feature of the movement. Beethoven feels no real need to create transitions between sections: he merely stops, as if a new thought has occurred to him, and goes off in a new direction after a pause. Although the exposition is repeated, that is perhaps the most “normal” feature of this movement, which has a compressed development section and a recapitulation which seems ready to luxuriate in a lingering coda – but no, it decides not to after all, and puts a quick end to the discussion.

The slow introduction that opens the second movement
is more a serious affair, introspective and reflective, as if gazing at the stars. At first, the piano and cello seem to be in another duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, but then each retreats to its own corner, the cello ruminating deep in the bass as the piano explores ever higher terrain above. Bringing them back together is the opening theme of the first movement, recalled in a mood so lyrical that it dissolves into a dreamy triple trill before the perky theme of the Allegro vivace bursts its bubble.

This theme, an accelerated version of the rising stepwise fourths of the first movement, is uniquely Beethovenian in character. It is both a motivic cell that animates serious discussion in the fugato of the development section, and a toy-like bauble that gets tossed out playfully in a game of tag between the instruments, made all the more humorously dramatic by the numerous expectant pauses that punctuate these mischievous exchanges.

 

Johannes Brahms


Sonata for cello & piano, Op. 99

Brahms’ second cello sonata is a ‘meaty’ work, the kind that Brahms no doubt would have wanted to play when he was studying the cello earnestly as a young music student in Hamburg. Designed expansively in four movements in the Beethovenian manner, with a third movement scherzo, it combines the impetuous spirit of the younger Brahms with the generous latherings of lyricism that characterize his mature style.

This sonata is a product of Brahms’ later years, a time when his life followed a predictable seasonal schedule. In the summer he would retire to the countryside to compose, then revise and correct his works for publication during
the winter season. Waiting eagerly to play his new works when he returned home to Vienna each autumn were
the members of the Joachim Quartet, headed by his
friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. The F major sonata was composed in the summer of 1886, during a summer sojourn in the Swiss countryside, and dedicated to Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), cellist in the Joachim Quartet – the same cellist for whom, with Joachim, he wrote the Double Concerto in A minor the following year.

The orchestral sweep of the sonata’s opening, with its rich carpet of tremolando figuration in the piano supporting bold fanfares in the cello line, sets it immediately apart from the subdued opening of Brahms’ previous cello sonata, the Sonata in E minor, Op. 38. This passionate but fragmented first theme in the cello seems to be shouting important news in all directions, like a town crier, while the second theme, announced by the piano, is a more smoothly connected melody. The tremolo figuration of the opening is not just sonic “filler”: it functions as a stabilizing counterfoil to the disjointed character of the sweeping opening theme, and plays a major role at the opening of the development section as well. Especially noteworthy in this movement is the magical passage that prepares the recapitulation, a passage in which time seems to stands still as the cello plays tremolo while the piano enacts great leaps from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.

The Adagio affetuoso second movement in simple ternary form carries the major emotional weight of this work. It opens with a procession-like tune in the piano, setting the scene for the cello to emerge in full-throated glory, singing out a richly chromatic but ever-so-lyrical melody that shows off the instrument to advantage in its high range. A middle section in the minor mode gives the piano a place in the sun as well, but the pool of light on the stage in this movement goes to the cello, which returns in the third section to wax lyrical once again, enveloped by an even more lavishly decorative piano accompaniment.

If the second movement belongs to the cello, the propulsive energy of the third movement, a scherzo marked Allegro passionato, is driven by strongly assertive piano writing. Cresting and subsiding in waves of sound, the opening section builds up sound resonance through the frequent use of pedal tones in the bass combined with a constant chatter of eighth-note motion above. Adding to the intensity of effect are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms (i.e.: “hemiola”), and syncopations that recall the opening of the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. Where the cello emerges more clearly is in the trio middle section, in which it hums a wistful melody in simple note values. While this tune seems folk- like in its simplicity, a number of odd melodic turns indicate that it has more on its mind than it is letting on.

The sonata ends with a fourth movement rondo much in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭, Op. 83. Gentle and tuneful, its principal theme alternates with a short series of contrasting episodes, none of which spoil the overall mood of contentment that characterizes the movement as a whole.

 

Frédéric Chopin


Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65

Chopin’s name is so intimately linked with the repertoire of the piano that it is difficult to imagine him writing for any other instrument. And yet he appears to have had a sincere appreciation for the sound and musical qualities of the cello. Not only do his works often feature piano textures with left-hand countermelodies in the cello’s baritone range – his Étude in C♯ minor, Op. 25, No. 7, is a classic example – but he actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and this sonata, his last published work, written for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).

The first movement opens with a sober, almost march-like theme announced in the piano, followed by a deliciously- scintillating pianistic flourish up to the high register, of the sort that must have made young ladies swoon. The cello then enters to take hold of the same melody and works through its melodic implications in a series of passionate interchanges with the piano until a moment of calm intervenes to set the stage for a vocally-inspired second theme of the utmost simplicity. While this movement is in sonata form, with a repeated exposition, the recapitulation is foreshortened and begins with the second theme. Because of Chopin’s habit of splitting melodic interest between the hands in his piano writing, the resulting texture when combined with the cello is extremely rich, frequently offering the ear three melodies to follow at once.

The second movement Scherzo pulls no dark consequences from the fact that it is written in the minor mode, preferring instead to create a more Mendelssohnian mood of “wicked merriment” in an exchange of short phrases between the cello and piano. The trio middle section, by contrast, spins out a waltz-like melody in
long phrases over a simple, arpeggiated accompaniment pattern in the piano.

The Largo is only twenty-seven measures, but with
its naïvely simple melody and widely-spaced piano accompaniment in hypnotically regular eighth notes, it recreates some of the intimacy of the nocturne genre, at which Chopin excelled. This untroubled movement, the still point at the centre of the sonata, has no other formal structure than that of a great sigh: it swells into fullness, then relaxes and fades into perfect repose.

The rondo-like final movement features themes of some dramatic complexity, most of which use dotted rhythms that play against a recurring pattern of triplets. The melodic and harmonic chromaticism of Chopin’s late style is fully in evidence in this movement, which ends with a stirring coda in a sunny G major.

 

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

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