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PROGRAM NOTES: BENJAMIN GROSVENOR

Robert Schumann Arabesque, Op. 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie espagnole S. 254

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Schubert
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511

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

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

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

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

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

 

Program Notes: 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: Behzod Abduraimov

 

Antonio  Vivaldi

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

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

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

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (arr.  Busoni)

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

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

 

Franz Schubert

Moments Musicaux Nos. 2 and 3 D. 780

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

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

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

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in F minor Op. 57 “Appassionata”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mily Balakirev

Islamey Op. 18

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: The Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Apollon Musagète Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3

In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—a six-pack of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of self-entertainment in the homes of the upper classes in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice in the trade was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so it was that when Beethoven finally decided in 1798 that it was time for him
to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.

The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from
that of its siblings. The D major Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 is the quiet one of the litter, the gentle introspective one, but surprisingly capable nonetheless of cutting up like a trickster when the circumstances are right. This quartet is bright and lyrical but not a show-off. There are no fugues or flashy variation movements, just a non-stop display of surpassing compositional inventiveness and contrapuntal skill.

The first movement Allegro opens unconventionally with the vocally conceived
leap of a 7th (A to G) played solo by the first violin. (If you don’t think a 7th is particularly singable, consider the first two notes of “There’s a place for us” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story.) This leap spawns points of imitation in the other instruments that seem to spring spontaneously, without fuss, from the very fabric

of the texture. There is, in fact, such an assured air of relaxed normality about this movement that its contrapuntal feats almost pass unnoticed. The second theme is a pulsing chordal subject in simple note values with a slight bit of oomph on the second beat. The one feature of this movement that does raise an eyebrow is its moderately substantial coda—a hint at Beethoven’s future fascination with lengthy postscripts.

The second movement Andante con moto is a cozy little rondo comprised of a principal theme and two contrasting episodes. It begins in close harmony with a songlike melody in even 8th notes delicately nuanced by chromatic inflections in the harmony. The mood of this movement never varies from its pose of poised thoughtfulness, even when passing through moments of reflection in the minor mode. Rather, it becomes ever richer in texture until finally reaching its climax in a pulsing stream of repeated 16th notes before slowly saying farewell to each of its constituent motives in a quiet farewell.

The Allegro third movement is a one-to-the-bar scherzo with a contrasting Minore middle section in place of a trio. Its mood is good-natured rather than overtly joking or rambunctious, as future Beethoven scherzos would turn out to be. The middle section picks up the pace with swirling runs in the first and second violins but this minor-mode merriment is tinged with the furrowed brow and secret sorrow of the Gypsy fiddler.

The quartet finally comes out of its shell in a Presto finale giddy with excitement and bubbling over with merriment. Its constantly bouncy rhythm and breathless pace make a joke out of every little ‘dumb’ pause—and there are many. Contrapuntal hi-jinx blend so effortlessly into the mix that even a thorny fugato section is tossed off like a walk in the park. Sealing the deal for Beethoven’s first four-voiced essay in musical wit is the ending, tossed off with the dry delivery of a stand-up comic.

 

Anton Webern
Langsamer Satz

Anton Webern is a composer known chiefly for his short, delicate, exquisitely concise atonal works written using the serial techniques developed in the early 20th century by what came to be known as the Second Viennese School, of which he was part—the ‘First’ School being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert a century earlier.

Celebrated as he is for the pristine, intellectually rigorous miniatures of his maturity,
we must remember that even this most cerebral of atonal composers was once young, and in love. And to express the torments and transports of young love there is nothing quite like good old tonality, especially the wildly yearning chromatic tonality of the late- Romantic period.

Webern’s utterly ravishing Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) for string quartet is deeply romantic (with a small r) and dates from June 1905, when the 21-year-old composer went on a five-day hiking tour of the picturesque Austrian countryside with Wilhelmine Mörtl, his cousin and future wife, with whom he was besotted.

Described by some as “Tristan und Isolde compressed into 11 minutes,” this work still counts as the longest that the famously laconic composer ever wrote. Perhaps because it was a student work—Webern had just begun studies with Arnold Schoenberg the year before—it was not performed publicly until 1962, when it was premiered by the University of Washington String Quartet at an international Webern festival in Seattle.

Longtime Webern wonks will no doubt note the sophistication of motivic manipulation in the work, especially the inversion of the opening theme that foretells one of the basic procedures of 12-tone composition. But for now let us take this work for what it was at its inception: the spontaneous creative outpouring of Young Anton in Love.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major, D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, it were vain to skirt the debate dividing rival Schubertian factions as to whether the mimeographic profusion of ideas in this composer’s works should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthy tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

No less a scholarly titan than Carl Dahlhaus has proposed that Schubert operates according to a different sense of psychological time. Some of his colleagues stress the trance-like quality of Schubert’s musical thinking, likening him to a musical somnambulist who bids us enter an enchanted world of involuntary dream-filled wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, still bemoan the way in which his practice of open-ended variation hijacks the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and betrays the expectation of propulsive forward drive created by Beethoven.

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim on the ministrations of Morpheus. Here is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is a work of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo. Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the weight of sound to create an orchestral-style tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply

to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge like a primal scream—in the minor! No lack of drama here. What follows combines the emphatic pomp of a Baroque French overture with the suspenseful hinting at things-to-come of a sonata movement’s slow introduction. The first theme, when it arrives, mixes great leaps with jagged dotted rhythms over a slowly descending bass-line, continuing the tone of epic grandeur announced at the outset. A lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Rocking back and forth within a small range, it does everything it can to de-emphasize the first beat of the bar. While the development section is tumultuous and intense, the movement’s two themes start duking it out long before that, interrupting each other, even in the exposition, in a continuous alternation of tranquil lilt and surging protest that plays out through the movement in the flickering shadows of quicksilver changes between major and minor modes.

No respite from turmoil arrives with the Andante con moto, a movement of impressive dimensions and intense emotional drama. Beginning innocently enough with a dignified little minor-mode tune in the cello, more musing than mournful, it plunges six times into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return and fretting tremolos vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.

It is left, then, for the Allegro vivace scherzo to lighten the mood and finally bring relief from the pall of anxiety and tension that has so far dominated the work. Continuous patterns of repeated notes mark this movement with a fleetness of foot that would soon become Mendelssohn’s trademark. Here the tremolos are written out in full, emphasizing their role as individual pulses of rhythmic intensity rather than furry blurs of sound. Antiphonal echo effects abound, with the barrage only interrupted by a delicious Ländler melody in the trio.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. The opening tarantella theme, glinting alternately between major & minor tone colouring soon gives way to a perfect parody of an opera buffa patter aria à la Rossini. This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program Notes: Leif Ove Andsnes

Jean Sibelius
Kyllikki, Three Lyric Pieces for Piano Op. 41

Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, has earned an honoured place in the modern canon chiefly on the merits of his orchestral works, notably his seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the tone poem Finlandia. Less celebrated are the composer’s more than 150 miniatures for piano, 115 of which were published in his lifetime, grouped into sets of varying size.

Writing in the early 20th century against a modernist backdrop of increasing
atonality, Sibelius continued to compose in the tradition of tonal key centres, albeit with a harmonic vocabulary considerably expanded from that of late 19th-century Romanticism. While rooted in the German tradition, his scores, like those of Janáček, often evoke the folk idiom of his native country in textures resonant with pedal points and pulsing with ostinato patterns, occasionally tinged with the timbral vibration of the katele, the traditional Finnish dulcimer.

Kyllikki, composed in 1904, presents a triptych of lyrical scenes possibly linked pictorially with the adventures of a character from Finnish folklore. Its sequence of pacing and moods parallels that of a traditional three-movement sonata. The opening Largamente is heavily textured and projects an aggressive, Lisztian boldness of utterance, its virtuoso pose projected in flying octaves and sweeping arpeggios that alternate with turbulent patches of modal melody swimming in dark pools of tremolos.

The Andantino ‘slow movement’ opens with a grave evocation of stunned grief in a succession of short phrases low in the register that sigh with the fatalist resignation of the Volga Boat Song. More sanguine sentiments pervade the animated middle section, but standing apart from these contrasting moods of despair and renewed hope is a mysterious dulcimer-like trilling, commenting from afar like a bird singing in the woods. By contrast, the Commodo last movement is a leisurely salon-style piece of the utmost clarity of intention, chatty with coy intimations of the dance.

Sibelius’ Op. 75 ‘tree’ pieces are as much about the Finnish landscape as the sturdy botanical specimens that inhabit it. The Birch bends in the wind, a drone bass rooting
it firmly in its native soil as it hums a jaunty little folk tune. The Spruce obviously
grew up in a palace park somewhere in the Austrian capital. In a reverie of nostalgic reminiscence, it recalls those warm summer nights when, as a sapling, it learned to sway to the strains of the Viennese waltz.

The Five Esquisses Op. 114 are Sibelius’ last works for solo piano, each a portrait
of some aspect of nature. The Forest Lake ripples in continuous 8th-note motion,
its disturbingly dark harmonic colouring impervious to the concerns of the human observer. Song in the Forest poetically journeys to the centre of a shaded wood to find a hymn-like melody amid the lush overgrowth of Scriabin-like tritones tracing patterns of light and shade far above. Spring Vision is a walk in the park to the beat of a gentle little Schumannesque march rejoicing in the arrival of April.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E flat major Op. 31 No. 3

Beethoven’s 18th sonata, written in 1802, is a remarkably relaxed work from a composer better known for his turbulent musical impulses and revolutionary spirit. More rambunctious than rebellious, it quarrels little with the pose of classical poise expected in a traditional four-movement sonata, seeking instead to engage its listeners through expressive tenderness and mischievous merriment.

The work opens with a coy serving of bite-sized motives: two wistful sighs (falling 5ths), answered by solemn chords below, concluding in an anticlimactic cadence that seems to say: “Just kidding!” Unfolding with devil-may-care breeziness, it arrives at a chipper second theme pertly singing out over a left hand accompaniment churning with bustle. The development section sets out frowningly in the minor mode but soon lightens up and joins the fun as motives get tossed, in comic opera style, between a gruff growling bass and a chirpy echoing treble. A perfectly normal recapitulation wraps up the movement with few surprises.

The second movement Scherzo eschews the muscular vigour, relentless energy, and even the ternary (A-B-A) form characteristic of the most famous Beethoven scherzos in favour of a return to the original Italian meaning of the term: a “joke”. Unexpected pauses and sudden outbursts abound to great comic effect, both sly and slapstick. Beethoven’s humour is very dry here, with a chorale-like marching hymn in the right hand playing out deadpan against a constant left-hand patter of 16th notes, trotting in mock-military precision. Peppery fanfares and “oops-a-daisy” glissando-like pratfalls add to the fun.

Beethoven reveals his immense gifts as a melodist in a Menuetto of the utmost dignity and lyrical grace, worthy of a noble aria by Gluck. The register-leaping Trio ensures that the movement’s smoothness doesn’t devolve into smarminess.

The Presto con fuoco finale is an exhilarating moto perpetuo that has been variously called a gallop or a tarantella. Its breathless pace, prominent horn-call motives, and slightly off-kilter rocking pattern in the left hand, reminiscent of horseback riding, have given the sonata as a whole the nickname The Hunt.

 

Claude Debussy
La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes

Claude Debussy’s first book of “prints” or “engravings” (Estampes) dates from 1905 and features stylized musical postcards of exotic locales and memorable landscapes, assembled from the musical traces they have left in the composer’s imagination.

The second musical portrait in the series evokes an evening spent in the Spanish city of Granada. The soul of the city is summoned up first by the lilting rhythm of the habañera (DUM-da-dum-dum) that echoes through every octave as the piece opens. Soon the spicy Arab scale, with its augmented melodic intervals, comes into earshot, mixed with the strumming of a Flamenco guitar. The piece ends in a drowsy sonic haze as these aural emblems of Iberian life fade into memory.

Études 7, 11, and 5 from Douze Études

It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano etudes, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with pedagogical drudgery and musical monotony, since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic narcissism and shamanistic showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection and his public persona was light years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.

So his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, a means of building endurance for when it is needed in “real” music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedaling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.

Etude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques is a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings, out of the sound-swirl of which emerges, in the left hand, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an etude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.

Etude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of “composite arpeggios” (i.e., multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.

Etude 5 Pour les octaves finds Debussy in the most extroverted mood, summoning up the spirit of the waltz in voluptuous eruptions of sound echoing up from the bass, reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse or Scriabin at his most manic. The undulating mix of octave leaps both large and small requires a jack-hammer hand in a velvet glove.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Impromptu in A flat Major Op. 29

Spontaneity is the feature most prized in the genre named for it, the impromptu. Chopin projects an air of extemporaneous improvisation in his Impromptu in A flat (1837) by means of swirling arabesques of triplets spun effortlessly out of a simple harmonic pattern, the very image of a bubbling fountain of inspiration. Deeper waters are plumbed in the more pensive middle section in F minor, but here, too, the notion of fresh musical thoughts, spontaneously imagined, is upheld by the lavishly decorative, operatic-style ornamentation of a starkly simple melody.

Étude in A flat Major from Trois Nouvelles Études

In 1839 Chopin composed three etudes for inclusion in the Méthode des méthodes (1840), a comprehensive piano instruction manual published by the Belgian music educator François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) and the Bohemian pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). By no means as technically challenging as the composer’s daunting Op. 10 and Op. 25 sets, these “new” etudes assigned the aspiring pianist tasks of a more concentrated, distinctly musical nature: how to maintain interest in a melodic line set within accompaniment patterns that vie with it for the listener’s attention.

In the Etude in A flat an expressive, vocally-inspired melody floats freely within a two-against-three pattern of gently pulsing figuration, outlining melt-in-your-mouth harmonies of a delicate, sometimes aching poignancy. With melody spilling luxuriantly out of all voices in the texture, Chopin in this etude blurs the line between harmony and melody, between melody and accompaniment.

Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1

Chopin’s early Nocturne in F major Op. 15 No. 1 (1830-31) is a study in contrasts. Its tender opening melody, warmly doubled in the mid-range by the tenor voice, floats serenely over sympathetic harmonies in pulsing triplets, the pure soul of innocence in song. But then, like a daydream broken off by the intrusion of a stray thought,

it pauses… and plunges into a nightmarish middle section in F minor boiling up in turbulence and torment from the bass. This too gradually ebbs, however, and we drift back to the opening melody, as if waking from a bad dream. There is something eerie, almost surreal, about both daydream and nightmare in this piece.

Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52

Chopin’s ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of storytelling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they

are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842- 43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems the order of the day but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones of the opening carry real pathos, made more plangent, and then more urgent, upon repetition with a countermelody in the alto.

The second theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the first theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then… magic! The very first bars of introduction return, in
a different key, and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.

But the first theme’s lament returns, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The second theme follows,
but it too finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in
a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until… magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.

After what seems like a reprieve—five angelic chords descending from heaven—all hell breaks loose and the work rides its fury to a final, fateful conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Program Notes: Arcanto Quartet

This evening the Arcanto Quartet offers us a chance to explore chamber music from the end of the 17th century to the recent past, sampling music for four players by Henry Purcell (1659–95), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

 

Henry Purcell

Long before the primacy of the string quartet, consort music for viols was a pre- eminent genre of instrumental music. Sixteenth century British composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis wrote impressive polyphonic compositions for three, four, or five performers. Slightly over a hundred years later, the young Henry Purcell became the last major figure to explore this particular format. His early fantasias and in nomines for viols—compositions based on a particularly popular chant fragment—were created at the transitional moment when the older viol family of instruments was giving way to the more brilliant timbre of the violins.

Purcell’s reputation as the first homegrown British composer to truly master the Baroque style is unassailable. Much of his music is indebted to Italian practice, yet his 13 fantasias demonstrate an implicit conservatism—close to the last gasp of an indigenous British string tradition.

What Purcell might have made of the sound and timbres of the modern string quartet is anyone’s guess. But modern interest in the unique charm of Purcell’s music has encouraged contemporary string quartets to program these varied and delightful compositions. Purcell had no more sincere admirer than Benjamin Britten, who adapted his Chacony in G minor for string quartet as early as 1948, in part to familiarize players and audiences with his distinguished predecessor’s music.

 

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s purely instrumental works have been somewhat eclipsed by the splendour of his creations for the opera stage, but his string quartets—written, conveniently, in “early,” “middle,” and “late” career—are gradually finding their way into the standard repertoire of the world’s great quartets.

His first quartet, conceived in 1928, when the composer was 14, was a substantial four-movement affair immediately withdrawn, and not published until the 1990s. The “official” First Quartet dates from 1941, created during the composer’s unsatisfactory self-exile in the United States. The Second Quartet was written four years later, just as Britten’s first great opera, Peter Grimes, was being premiered in war-torn London. Characteristically, it pays extravagant homage to Purcell with an astonishing concluding Chacony.

Creating the Third Quartet had to wait until the final months of Britten’s life. Commissioned by the Amadeus String Quartet in 1974, it is very much a final summing up and a farewell. Some of its musical materials were quarried from Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, but it is by no means just a suite of best bits or recycled out-takes from that stage work.

Like Shostakovich, his composer friend of later years, Britten filled his music with coded references and intentional ambiguities, though it might seem that choosing to base an opera on Thomas Mann’s tale of infatuation and the end of a life devoted to art is fairly unambiguous.

Whatever its sources, the Third Quartet is chamber music of the highest quality, rife with allusive references to the historical idea of the string quartet. Its five-movement structure, with such operatic focuses as “duets,” “solo,” and “recitative,” relates to similar five-movement structures in two of the 20th century’s other quartet masters, Bartók and Shostakovich, and reflects a conscious desire to push beyond the conventional classic four-movement quartet format. The use of Lydian mode in the second movement inevitably brings to mind Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132, with its “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity”—a fairly unpleasant

bit of irony given the precarious state of Britten’s health when he was writing the piece. The Burlesque evokes Mahler, one of Britten’s abiding heros, and his embittered scherzos.

Then comes the finale. Britten made a final pilgrimage to Venice in November 1975, where he created much of the music heard at the end of the quartet. It is his last use of the passacaglia/chaconne type of variations, an old pre-classical structure he

employed with spectacular variety throughout his work. In opera Britten uses the form to underscore moments of great seriousness and drama, making it a potent symbol as well as a musical structure. In abstract contexts such as the finales of both the second and third quartets, it is left to the listener to ponder extra-musical meanings.

Britten heard a private run-through of the piece at the end of September, 1976, but died a few weeks before the quartet’s premiere by the Amadeus in The Maltings, the concert hall Britten created near Aldeburgh, in mid-December 1976.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

By the time Beethoven turned his hand to the “Razumovsky” Quartets in the middle of the first decade of the 19th century, he was accepted as one of the major composers in Vienna. His flashy early years were over, and he was well-advanced into what scholars generally call his middle period, a compositional phase where he focussed on pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas.

Beethoven’s three Opus 59 string quartets are central to the development of the string quartet as chamber music’s most important genre. Beethoven accepted the four- movement sequence standardized by Mozart and Haydn—weighty first movement, slow movement, Minuet, and fast finale—but he expanded the classic idioms with his own unmistakable textures, formal devices, and harmonic language.

The nickname “Razumovsky” refers to one of Beethoven’s patrons, Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752–1836), a Russian diplomat at the Austrian court. A player as well as a connoisseur, Razumovsky maintained a resident quartet (apparently sitting in occasionally as second violin) and commissioned Beethoven to write the three quartets that have kept the count’s name alive long after his career as a powerful figure in the complicated world of international diplomacy has been forgotten.

Beethoven did remarkable work in the three Opus 53 quartets, but not all his contemporaries got the point; indeed at least one writer recorded his reservations. An 1807 observer for the weekly music publication the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the compositions as “very long and difficult.” The writer was by no means entirely negative, adding, “They are profoundly thought through and composed with enormous skill,” before concluding “but [they] will not be intelligible to everyone.”

This mixed review did not extend to the C major quartet, however—“Which by virtue of its individuality, melodic invention and harmonic power is certain to win over every educated music lover.” As it has to this day.

 

 

Program Notes: Caroline Goulding & Wenwen Du

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015

Before taking up his post as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728). The young Prince was of the Calvinist persuasion, and thus had little need for church music, but he was also an avid music-lover and a competent viola da gamba player who spent lavishly on a musical establishment, his Kapelle, that Bach directed from 1717 to 1723. And so it was that during his tenure there Bach composed the majority of his works for violin, including a good half-dozen sonatas for violin and keyboard.

The four movements of the Sonata in A major are laid out in the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the ‘church’ sonata (sonata da chiesa), so named for its generally abstract style, considered more suitable for performance in a solemn setting than the dance-dominated ‘chamber’ sonata (sonata da camera). In this work Bach writes in the prevailing style of the trio sonata—normally featuring a lead solo instrument accompanied by clearly subordinate harmonic in-fill on the keyboard and bass reinforcement by some low-sounding instrument—but he enriches the genre by creating three independent melodic lines on two instruments: the violin and the two hands of the keyboard player.

This is evident in the warmly gracious first movement (without tempo indication) which opens with a luxuriantly long-limbed melody, deliciously ambivalent in its rhythmic pulse (is it 6/8 or 3/4?), answered immediately in the keyboard’s right hand, and then again in the left. The deliberately varied mixture of note lengths and beat patterns encourages you to forget the passage of time while gracious details such as simultaneous chains of trills in both instruments add a decorative element of Roccoco refinement to the texture.

The Allegro assai second movement is much more strongly rhythmic and features the propulsive motoric rhythms of the concerto grosso, with the keyboard often taking the lead in a constant chatter of 16ths while the violin trots blithely along commenting in a uniform pattern of 8ths. The violin’s breathless volley of rapid-fire arpeggios in the middle section is reminiscent of a Brandenburg Concerto cadenza.

Gentle pathos and lyrical introspection mark the Andante un poco third movement in the minor mode. Plaintively vocal in style, this movement is nevertheless structured with astonishing rigour. Listen for the strict two-voice canon between the violin and keyboard’s right hand.

The final Presto is in two-part form (with repeats) like a dance movement, but elaborated in a free three-voice fugue texture in each half. In this concluding movement Bach manages to gift his pleasure-loving prince with a finale that combines regal dignity and courtly decorum with the toe-tapping cheerfulness of a folk tune suitable for whistling.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2

In this sonata we catch Beethoven at the top of his game in a work of remarkable coherence, despite its wide variety of moods and wildly divergent styles of expression. Its outer movements, in particular, are chock-full of emotional mood swings while its inner movements simply wade ever deeper and deeper into the emotional tone they establish at their outset.

The piano is more than a full partner in the proceedings and its tone dominates the sonata as a whole. All four movements open with solo statements from the piano, and while the violin participates fully in the presentation and development of themes, it merely adds to, but never overshadows, the piano’s potential to create sonic theatre on its own terms. The piano purrs and growls in this work. It skips, it hops. By turns it whistles a merry tune and then tenderly pleads for understanding. The work of giving a place to the keyboard in the violin sonata, begun by Bach, is complete in this C minor sonata.

Of course, the key signature of C minor in Beethoven is tantamount to an in-flight announcement to fasten your seat-belt and expect turbulence. And Ludwig van B. does not disappoint. The work opens in a mood of mystery and quiet urgency with a furtive chordal motive in the piano that turns into a menacing murmur surging up from the bass at the entry of the violin. Strident, sabre-slashing chords mark the transition to the second theme that (anticlimactically) turns out to be a pert little military march, reminiscent of Non più andrai, the bass aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro evoking Cherubino’s future life in the army. The opera parallel continues as this theme then moves to the bass to rumble around in classic opera buffa style. Throughout the movement high drama plays out next to good-natured buffoonery, interspersed with passages of sheer rhythmic exhilaration. Beethoven clearly loves his material here and won’t let it go, plunging into an almost developmental coda of some length before the final chords of this movement.

The Adagio cantabile that follows paints a noble portrait of deep-seated emotion lacquered over, and held in check, by aristocratic restraint, its opening gesture of pleading repeated notes suggesting far more than the elegant, balanced phrases of its melody can express. Violin and piano become ever more texturally entwined as the movement progresses, with the piano eventually contributing a rich carpet of sweeping and swirling figurations beneath the cantilena of the violin above.

The Scherzo simply oozes with personality of a goofy, knuckle-headed sort that wins you over immediately. Its chirpy high spirits and galumphing rhythm, with phrases neatly cut up into bite-size pieces, bespeaks the country yokel but its playful toying with the metrical accent gives a hint of a winking intelligence lurking behind this pose, especially when the trio turns out to be in canon.

The sonata-rondo finale returns to the arena of high-tension theatre, beginning with its very first bars: a bass rumble that crescendos to explode into an exclamation point in the higher register, followed by hushed chords tiptoeing through the mid-range. It is hard not to think that in the many contrasting sections of this rondo, in its quicksilver alternations of major and minor mode, its deadpan changes of mood between high drama and skippy-dippy cheerfulness, Beethoven might well be having a laugh at the expense of sonata form itself.

 

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

It has been suggested that the title ‘sonata’ is equivalent here to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting. It simply refers to an absence of acknowledged subject matter, meaning that there was no ‘picture’ in mind when writing it. Others see Debussy as returning to the time of Rameau, when the term ‘sonata’ was used to mean simply a purely instrumental piece, something played rather than sung, but not necessarily a work following a prescribed formal plan.

Whatever the significance of the label, we find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this work, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. This melodic rocking motion—in 3rds, in 4ths and then in 5ths— repeats often in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone.

The second movement tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes.

The finale, Très animé, opens with a display of piano bravura, answered in the violin with the opening melody of the first movement. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Béla Bartók
Rhapsody No.
1 Sz. 87

Bartók was not only a gifted composer and an accomplished pianist but also a dedicated ethnomusicologist who travelled deep into the rural outback of his native Hungary and surrounding regions to make recordings of villagers singing and playing the traditional music of their local areas. The authentic, raw-edged musical culture of turn-of-the-century peasant life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is captured in these recordings, but it is also heard in the many works that Bartók composed based on the melodies and rhythms collected on these ethnomusicological field trips.

His first Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, composed in 1928, is one of these. Structured in two movements in the slow-fast (lassú-friss) pattern of Hungarian folk music, this work seeks to meld the disparate worlds of Eastern European village fiddling and Western European concert life. The style of violin playing is heavily influenced by the capricious improvisatory showmanship of Gypsy fiddle-playing while the piano, resonant with dense tone clusters, jangles with the metallic timbre of a rag-tag village band.

The first movement Lassú presents a strutting rising-scale melody in the Lydian mode (think: C major scale with F# instead of F) over a plodding piano part rife with drone tones, often more a sonic drum-beat than a melodic line. A middle section offers lyric contrast with a plangent lament derived from a Transylvanian folk tune, full of rhythmic ‘snaps’ in a quick short-long pattern.

The Friss is a series of dance tunes with no overall formal structure other than that of continually building up excitement, accelerando, till the end. The violin in this movement is pushed to ever greater exertions of virtuosic showmanship in pursuit of its rhapsodic goals. (Is it just me, or is the first tune not a dead ringer for the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”?)

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

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