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PROGRAM NOTES: THE VERONA QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
Quartet in B at major Op. 50 No. 1

The art music of Western Europe underwent a period of transition in the mid- 18th century as the thickly embroiled scores of the Baroque, with their long spun-out melodic lines and constant harmonic churn, gradually yielded to the clearer textures, symmetrical phrases and slower harmonic rhythms of
the emerging Classical era. Haydn was one of the chief architects of the new musical style and a new musical genre, the string quartet, played a leading role in its propagation.

As an ensemble of smoothly blended stringed instruments, the quartet naturally lent itself to an equality of part-writing that Haydn exploited to create engaging musical ‘conversations’, with phrases that asked questions answered by phrases that replied to them, and featuring instruments that led the discussion while others ‘listened’ in sympathetic accompaniment.

In Viennese circles the string quartet was an all-male ensemble of wealthy amateurs and professional musicians who, like the madrigal singers of the Renaissance, made music in private for their own enjoyment. The exclusive nature of the gathering, along with its masculine sensibility, meant that in- jokes and prankish humour, of a sort that Haydn was particularly adept at concocting, were a much-appreciated element of the style. The exchange of knowing smiles and impish smirks between players was evidently a major feature of the evening’s entertainment.

Few works embody this ideal of connoisseurship like the set of six quartets Op. 50 that Haydn wrote in 1787, dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and known as the Prussian quartets. They could just as easily be called the Seinfeld quartets for their quality of improvising musical theatre out of nothing – out of mere scraps of melody and memorable fragments of rhythm.

Witness the opening Allegro movement of the first in the set, the Quartet in B at, in which the entire discursive content is laid out sequentially in the first 8 bars: the pulsing of a single low pitch by the solo cello, a cute little up-and- down gure that cadences after it’s just begun, and the same up-and-down gure cast in triplets. From these pulsing, cadencing & triplet motives alone Haydn creates an entire sonata-form movement: a monothematic movement (as was oft his wont), since his second subject, in triplets, derives directly from the triplets of his first. So seamlessly interwoven, in fact, are the motivic and formal Lego pieces of this movement that modern scholars are still at brickbats about just where the recapitulation begins.

In the Adagio non lento theme and variations, the accent is on decoration. The theme is an assemblage of small motivic gestures with many coy leaps, set in a siciliano rhythm. The following three variations and coda lace the theme with ever-more-frilly garlands of accompanimental ligree, with the lyrical core of the movement residing in the operatically-inspired central variation in the minor mode.

The Poco Allegretto minuet & trio displays a subtle quirkiness in its metrical dissonances, with a triplet-vs-duplet tussle evident in the very first statement of the theme. Accented off-beat entries and sliding chromatic lines add to the dizziness, but the sparkling highlight of the movement comes in the clever hiccuping of the 1st and 2nd violin lines in the trio.

The Vivace last movement is a bustling, high-energy romp in the spirit of an opera buffa finale, with lively contrapuntal exchanges between the instruments and hairpin changes in direction alternating with addle-brained moments of comic indecision and goofy episodes of daydreaming. Built on a simple downward arpeggio pattern, it is another monothematic sonata-form movement, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, but one that seems to want to be a rondo, with its veer pattern of recurring refrains.. Don’t be fooled by the apparently final-sounding cadence in the recapitulation. It’s a ruse! Haydn puts in a gran pausa, a full two-bar rest, to make you think the movement is over … then merrily begins again to lead the work to its real conclusion.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quartet No. 7 in F# minor Op. 108

The worlds of Shostakovich and Haydn were poles apart, as different as 18th- century Vienna and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Soviet ideology celebrated national folk music and looked down on elitism in art, so merely writing a string quartet, with its origins in the salons of the Viennese aristocracy, risked labelling its composer as a cultural dissident. And yet Shostakovich wrote 15 string quartets in his career and there is no shortage of critical commentary that interprets them as products of their political environment.

Shostakovich’s chromatically wandering melodies seem to be searching in numb bewilderment for their place in the natural tonal world, and never really nding it. The lack of harmonic drive, the sparse textures, and generally low dynamic range seem to symbolize a kind of social alienation that is easy to map onto the daily life of citizens living under a repressive regime.

Another view, however, might see the composition of these string quartets as escaping the pressures of Soviet society rather than typifying them, as retreating to an abstract world of formal compositional practice in a direct line of descent from Haydn. Because for all their moonscape strangeness, the string quartets of Shostakovich are written “the old-fashioned way”: with identifiable musical motives developed within an imitative contrapuntal texture that lls out a large-scale formal plan – the very essence of Haydn’s string quartet language.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, written in 1960, makes a strong case for this view, so tightly is its construction based on the development of its clearly marked musical motives. The work is structured in three movements played without a break, in a large-scale cyclical design, its last movement almost entirely based on transformed materials from the first two movements.

It opens with the solo 1st violin playing a seemingly carefree series of 3-note gures, chromatically tripping down the F# minor scale to end in a 3-note ‘door-knocking’ rhythm on one note – a rhythm that permeates most of the movement, even the buoyant second theme announced by the cello. The opening scalar descent is soon developed in pizzicato triplets, ever dogged by the door-knocking rhythm, which o ciates even in the slow coda at the end of the movement.

The Lento second movement demonstrates how Shostakovich keeps his textures starkly simple and easy to grasp in the ear. In this movement he places a rhythmic ostinato in the mid-range while motivic and thematic play alternates on both sides of it. He begins with a roaming 16th-note pattern of noodling in the 2nd violin, over which the 1st violin intones a searingly intense, but chilling cantilena, soon passed to the cello in its high register. The mid- range murmuring then changes to a di erent kind of ostinato, in a constant dotted rhythm, as ghostly melodic phrases alternate above and below.

The stage is now set for the finale, which swallows the motives of the previous two movements whole and spits them out in radically new guises. This last movement is in two sections: a violently aggressive Allegro followed by a more re ective Allegretto. It opens with the series of tripping 3-note gures that began the quartet, inverted now into a de antly set of ascending gestures climbing up the scale. Soon the innocuous noodlings and dotted gures that had murmured in the background of the second movement burst into the foreground at volume as the two-part subject of a teeth-gritting fugue, at the climax of which the 2nd movement’s searing melody emerges, followed by the original descending gures from the 1st movement and their culminating ‘door-knocking’ triplets.

Taking the movement to its conclusion is an Allegretto that pores soothing oil on these troubled waters, still using materials from the previous movements, but with its slower pace and almost waltz-like musical character leading the movement to an enigmatically quiet coda much like that of the first movement, now experienced as a final bookend to the work as a whole.

Maurice Ravel
Quartet in F major

Comparisons between Debussy and Ravel are inevitable when thinking of French impressionism and the string quartets of these two composers – Debussy’s of 1893 and Ravel’s of 1903 – provide an unusually fertile ground for such comparisons. Both works exhibit a feeling for the exotic in their use of modal melodies and cozy harmonies chosen for their colour rather than their drive to arrive at a cadence. Both relish unusual textures and timbres (e.g., the pizzicato-dominated scherzos in both) and the use of a cyclic design that sees the same themes recur between movements.

But whereas Debussy’s world is more dreamlike and motivated by free association, Ravel’s more clearly focussed and formally controlled. The willingness to oat in an ever-changing moment of timeless rêverie
is uppermost in Debussy, the crystalline sense of order and classical craftsmanship is stronger in Ravel.

Ravel reveals himself to be the compositional master of the iron (formal) hand in the velvet (timbral) glove especially well in his Quartet in F major, with its layout in the four traditional movements of classical practice: a sonata-form opening movement, 2nd movement scherzo and contrasting trio, a lyrical 3rd movement, and rondo-ish finale.

Two contrasting themes motivate the formal procedures of the gently-paced first movement: a thoughtful, musing first theme introduced at the opening by the 1st and 2nd violins, and a second more introspective second theme played by the 1st violin and viola together two octaves apart. The development section sets these themes against a plush background of quivering tremolos that contribute mightily to its climax and the recapitulation is a paragon of balanced repetition, being almost a carbon-copy of the exposition. Notable in the movement’s soothing coda are the cello’s 10 bars of consecutive parallel perfect fifths (!), a harmonic practice banned in traditional harmony.

The scherzo is a kaleidoscope of colourful musical e ects: pizzicato timbres, shrieking high trills, and alternating patterns of 3/4 and 6/8 meters, suggestive of both Spanish folk-dance rhythms and the complex overlays of a Javanese gamelan ensemble. The slower, almost morose trio middle section repurposes previous melodic material to create a kind of a casserole of broken musical pasta pieces before hinting at, then diving into, a repeat of the opening section.

The third movement is a deeply lyrical rhapsody in many sections, with sinuous, sensuous melodies (many recalling previous movements) set against a number of evocative timbral backdrops. The stillness of night is almost palpable in this movement, although an underlying passion lurks deep beneath the trembling sonic foliage, a passion that nds expression in the movement’s throbbing climax.

The finale is a kind of rondo, alternating urgently propelled circling motives in quintuple meter (5/8 and 5/4) with calmer, more lyrical sections in 3/4 that nostalgically remember themes from earlier movements. Tremolo in this finale is not used as a mere background accompaniment, but rather as the main source of propulsive energy driving the movement to its exultant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

 

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

Robert Schumann: Violin sonata no. 1 in A minor, Op. 105
Schumann wrote both of his completed sonatas for violin and piano in 1851. His wife Clara played the piano parts at their public premieres with violinists Ferdinand David (No. 1 in 1852) and Joseph Joachim (No. 2 in 1853). Though frequently recorded, these sonatas are only occasionally heard in the concert hall. The violin part tends to remain in the lower range where it merges, rather than contrasts, with the piano’s sonority; the upper range of the violin is seldom exploited; thematic ideas within the sonata-form movements are not always clearly differentiated; and not every movement is free from mechanical repetitiveness. But counterbalancing these qualities are Schumann’s often passionate themes, poetic ideas, rich textures and rhythmic urgency that contribute many inspired moments to the music.

The A minor sonata exemplifies many of these assets well in its opening bars. Instructed to play “with passionate expression”, the violinist plunges headlong into a sweeping theme full of romantic yearning and grand gestures. The second movement opens with a capricious but sunny principal theme that alternates with two short episodes, the first soulful, the second bustling. The turbulent, agitated mood returns in the finale. Violin and piano chase each other through a skittish first theme, whose rhythmic pattern pervades the entire movement. The second theme brings with it a measure of lyrical respite, but we are never far from the almost overbearing presence of the staccato rhythmic pattern.

Toru Takemitsu: From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog
When Toru Takemitsu died seventeen years ago, the world lost one of its greatest composers of the late twentieth century. The enormous list of prestigious commissions, honours, awards and prizes he received (including the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize in Ottawa in 1996) attest to his stature as one of the preeminent musical figures of our time. Takemitsu’s great achievement was to synthesize with a high degree of success aspects of both Western and Oriental esthetics and techniques. A preoccupation with timbres, textures, colours and evanescent sonorities is the hallmark of Takemitsu’s style, while freely evolving musical material, contemplative moods and a sensation of quasi-spatial experience inform most of his music. In addition, there is a sense of profound reserve and self-control in this music, which is often dreamy, sensuous, delicate and imbued with a huge palette of delicate pastels. The title From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog (1983) comes from a stanza of a poem entitled “In the Shadow” by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka. Takemitsu exploits the idea of “shadow” in the music by using what he calls six “dominant” pitches and six “shadow” pitches.

Maurice Ravel: Tzigane
It was through the Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi that Ravel became acquainted with gypsy music; he found it so fascinating that he determined to write a piece in this style for her. Two years later, he produced the Tzigane (French for gypsy, and related to the German Zigeuner), modeled after the freely structured Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano by Liszt. D’Aranyi and Ravel gave the first performance in London on April 26, 1924. The violin part was phenomenally difficult, and d’Aranyi had only a few days to learn it, but such was her mastery that Ravel remarked: “If I had known, I would have made the music still more difficult.” That July he transcribed the piano part for full orchestra.
The work opens with a long, unaccompanied presentation of the melodic material by the solo violin. In the course of a freely rhapsodic succession of ideas employing the so-called gypsy scale, the instrument indulges in all manner of virtuosic effects, including harmonics, double, triple and even quadruple stops.

Leoš Janáček:Violin sonata
Janáček’s music is steeped in the folk music idioms and speech patterns of his Moravian homeland, located in the north central region of what was formerly Czechoslovakia. “The whole life of man is in folk music,” he proclaimed. Hence, it comes as no surprise to find that this composer’s melodic material, both vocal and instrumental, follows closely the inflections, cadences and rhythms of the Czech language, and that he developed a uniquely expressive style.

Janáček left just one violin sonata, which he wrote in his sixties. (His two student works in the genre are lost.) “I wrote it at the beginning of the War when we were expecting the Russians in Moravia,” he declared. This was meant in a positive sense, for Janáček was counting on the Russians to liberate his country from the yoke of the Hapsburgs. Some listeners hear the sound of gunfire evoked in the final movement. Evocations of Russia can also be detected in the first and third movements, where the tone and melodic shapes resemble certain passages in Janáček’s opera Katya Kabanova, whose story comes from a Russian drama (The Storm by Ostrovsky). The sonata went through several transformations before arriving at its final form in 1922. The premiere was given that year in Brno by František Kudlaček and Jaroslav Kvapil.

André Previn: Tango, Song and Dance
André Previn unquestionably ranks among the most talented, versatile and best known musicians of our time. Now approaching his 82nd birthday, he sits comfortably at the pinnacle of numerous professions: as orchestrator (a service he was already providing MGM Studios back in high school), arranger, jazz pianist (as such he began recording in the days of 78s), classical pianist, conductor, television host, composer of film scores, author (of his memoir No Minor Chords) and composer of classical music.

Previn composed Tango, Song and Dance in 1997 as a set of lighthearted virtuoso pieces for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. She and the composer gave the first performance on August 26, 2001 in Lucerne. Previn writes that in the first movement “the clustered harmonies are not terribly far removed from the sound the traditional accordion makes.” In the Song, “the violin predominates throughout, and the accompaniment is simple and direct.” Of the Dance, Previn notes that “I doubt whether dancers would be happy keeping time to this, but of course for two instrumentalists it becomes a good deal easier.”

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

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