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Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

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

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

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

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

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


Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

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

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

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

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


George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

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

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

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


Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

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

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

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

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

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

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


Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

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

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

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

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

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


Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Bryn Terfel

Idris Lewis
Cân yr arad goch (Ceiriog)

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

Meirion Williams
Gwynfyd – Y Cymro

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

Owen Williams
Sul y blodau

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

Frederick Keel
Salt Water Ballads

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

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

Jacques Ibert
Chansons de Don Quichotte

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

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

Bryan Davies
A Medley of Welsh Folksongs

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

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

Robert Schumann
Belsatzar Op. 57
Zwei Venezianische

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

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

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

Franz Schubert
Five Lieder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason


Program Notes: Schubertiade Performance Three

Sonata in A major D959

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

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

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

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

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

Schwanengesang D957

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Schubertiade Perfomance Two

Fantasie in F minor for piano four hands D940

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.

But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.

Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, modally speaking – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.

The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overturelike first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other’s phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.

The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a browknitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.

Sonata in B flat major D960

Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in 1828 a scant few months before his death, exemplifies in one single work the full range of his gifts as lyric melodist, serious musical dramatist, and refined exponent of the light, dance-besotted musical style of Vienna.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is typically generous in its bounty of themes. It opens with a softly whispered melody, humbly small in range and accompanied by a repeated pedal tone in the left hand, like a pulsing human heartbeat. This opening theme has a sweet yearning quality that gives it an ineffable, almost nostalgic charm, urging it to burst more fully into song, which it soon does. A second theme introduces a tentative note of worry, but Schubert’s constant harmonic wavering between the major and minor modes prevents the emotional tone from becoming downcast. A third theme of a triadic stamp scampers over the full range of the keyboard, in both hands, to re-establish a more directly buoyant emotional tone, disturbed only by a recurring low trill in the left hand that acts as a sectional marker within the movement. The development is where all the drama lies, as Schubert passes his melodic material through a harmonic colour wheel, building to an intense climax that acts as a rare moment of sonic emphasis in the centre of what is, essentially, a movement of delicate shades of nuance.

Much more starkly dramatic is the Andante sostenuto slow movement which features an introspective melody in the mid-range of the keyboard, surrounded by sonic echoes, both above and below, implying that this lonely plaintive voice is pleading its mournful case in a vast, but empty enclosure. It is hard not to think of the more militant middle section as an attempt to take heart, an attempt that inevitably fails as the opening mood returns to conclude the movement.

The third movement scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza, is indeed ‘delicate’ if judged by the standards of Beethoven’s rough-house humour. More typically Viennese in its subtlety, it generates good-natured humour from its frequent changes of register and twinkling grace notes. A steady interchange of material between the hands creates the impression of a dialogue between two real musical ‘characters’. The contrasting trio in the minor mode is much more sedate, sitting put in the middle of the keyboard and shifting its weight around in gentle syncopations.

Still in a humorous frame of mind, Schubert begins his rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a mock ‘mistake’. Starting off in the minor mode, he then ‘remembers’ that he wants to be in a major key and makes a mid-course correction at the end of the first phrase. This joke of changing dramatic masks from the serious to the comedic is played out frequently during the movement, with intervening episodes of songful respite in between. This is a finale filled with congenial joking of the most sophisticated kind, created by a true Viennese pianistic ‘sit-down comic’.

Trio in B flat major for piano, violin and cello D898

The popular image of Schubert as the composer of cheerful lyrical melodies, spontaneously extending out to heavenly length, is given ample confirmation in his B flat Trio D898. Despite being completed in the last year of Schubert’s life, this large-scale work displays none of the dark, foreboding tone of other works of this period in which the approach of death can be intuited on the horizon. Rather, it radiates a healthy emotional flow of musical sentiments, passing from an alert and fully engaged first movement through a serenely voluptuous second movement, and ending in a pair of movements smitten with the spirit of the dance.

The opening Allegro moderato presents us with a triadic fanfare theme in the strings over a pulsing cushion of harmonic support in the piano, ushering in the mood of spirited resolve and bright-eyed optimism that will dominate the movement as a whole. Pert punctuations of dotted rhythm and jolly figurations of triplets add a bouncing quality to this theme, summoning up the image of a bracing walk in the park on a pleasant spring morning. The generous, widearching intervals of the songful second theme, introduced by the cello, only add to the feeling that all’s right with the world and a hot cup of tea awaits at home. The development section takes its job seriously, chewing over important phrases from both themes with a sense of dramatic import but always arriving at a happy resolution of its thematic concerns.

The heavy lifting of the work thus completed, Schubert gives us a bit of naptime in a Brahmsian lullaby of a slow movement, Andante un poco mosso. The cello takes on major melodic duties in this movement, cooing with its fellow turtle-dove, the violin, in a cheek-to-cheek duet of mutual admiration that a more florid central episode only serves to intensify.

Schubert’s third movement scherzo lies halfway between the sedateness of the minuet from which this genre developed and the mischievous joke that it became. Its quick, but still danceable, repeated notes harken back more to the folk dancing idiom of the Austrian Ländler than to the stiff reserve of the courtly minuet. There is no doubt about the trio, however. It is a straight-up waltz (and seemingly a forerunner to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz) with the piano’s echoing “pah-pah” in support of a reliable one-to-a-bar “oom” in the strings.

The last movement rondo, Allegro vivace, is even more dancelike, glinting with numerous stylistic influences from Viennese popular music. It features a delicately skipping principal theme opposed by a mock-serious thematic challenger in strong unisons, with lots of frolicsome scampering in dotted rhythms and joyous triplets filling in the landscape in between. Adding to the light tone of this movement is Schubert’s practice of treating the piano largely as a single-line instrument, chuckling merrily away in unisons or octaves up in the high register alongside the violin.

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Schubertiade Performance One

Sonata in C minor D958

Of the three last sonatas Schubert wrote just before his death in 1828, it is the Sonata in C minor that most reveals him as Beethovenian, not just in his choice of key, synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, but more tellingly in the restless energy and propulsive forward drive that characterizes its four contrasting movements.

The Allegro first movement begins boldly with a series of punchy gestures clearly patterned after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. When the turmoil of this serious opening material subsides, a more familiar personality emerges, that of Schubert the keyboard colourist, painting magical moments of calm and stability, anchored in pedal points that drum reassuringly from the bass or ring bell-like in the treble. These, in turn, give way to more active sections alternating between a spirit of the dance and worrying signals of alarm, a typically Schubertian dichotomy of moods.

Where the spirit of Beethoven moves most freely is in the development section, in which he gnaws away at small motives, like a dog worrying a bone. Eventually, he abandons all pretense of melody in a free chromatic fantasy that leads with conviction to the return of the movement’s opening chords in the recapitulation. Beethovenian, as well, is the ruminative coda that recalls material from the development at the movement’s close.

The second movement is a rarity in Schubert: a real Adagio. But the mood of repose and elegiac tone offered by the opening melody is twice interrupted by thoughts of a more anxious nature, the first interruption fretting its concern in a pattern of pulsing triplets, the second breaking into full-on contrapuntal discord. Much about this movement, especially the triplet figurations, is reminiscent of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.

The sonata’s third movement is a Menuetto, but it appears strangely conflicted as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. The extreme irregularity of its phrase lengths makes toe-tapping of any extended length impossible, and its thoughtful pauses point more to the Romantic-era rhetoric of inner doubt than to the assured pose of Classical-era court ritual.

Where Schubert unleashes his inner playful demon with wicked glee is in the last movement Allegro, a moto perpetuo of considerable length in tarantella rhythm. When hearing this movement it is hard not to summon up the picture of a thrilling ride on horseback over hill and dale. Something of the exhilaration of the ride is available to the pianist, as well, in the extraordinarily effective hand-crossing textures that Schubert creates, with melodic fragments tossed wildly between the treble and bass registers over the pounding patter of horse’s hooves in the mid-range.

Fantasie in C major for Violin & Piano D934

Who knew that Schubert could write a virtuoso showpiece for violin? It was in early 1828 that the young Czech virtuoso Josef Slavík (1806-1833) was to appear at a concert in Vienna along with Schubert’s friend, the pianist Carl Maria von Bocklet (1801-1881). Slavík’s dazzling virtuosity was rumoured to be on a par with that of Paganini while Von Bocklet was creating quite a stir in the capital with his keyboard fantasias. Schubert’s decision to write a display vehicle for both of them in the form of a free fantasy must have been an easy one.

The Fantasie is laid out in seven continuous sections, built around variations on Schubert’s own well-known setting of the love poem Sei mir gegrüsst! by German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The poem expresses the yearning of a young lover separated from the kisses of his beloved and the work evokes these tender emotions in its introduction, opening in a sonic haze of piano tremolos in imitation of orchestral strings, or perhaps even the thrum of the Hungarian cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer. Against this timbral backdrop an endearing melody of long-held violin notes emerges as trills burble up from the lower regions of the piano and then sparkle from the high register.

A second introductory section is more animated and dancelike; its crush notes give it a tangy Hungarian gypsy flavour, although the constant imitative interchange between the instruments gives it something of a sly, knowing quality, as well.

The centrepiece of the work is the third section, which arrives with a simple statement in the piano of the gently lilting lied melody with its languorous chromatic turns of phrase, emblematic of the lover’s sighs. Three bravura variations in the style of Paganini ensue and, after a brief reminiscence of the theme, the work closes with a vigorous Presto exclamation point.

The composer makes shockingly effective use of the high register in both instruments to create a dazzling array of ear-tickling textures. So dazzling, in fact, that admirers of his more sedate ‘Viennese’ style might well ask, “Who are you, and what have you done with Franz Peter Schubert?”

String Quintet in C D934

Schubert’s decision to write a string quintet in the last year of his life with two cellos, instead of the more normal two violas used by Mozart and Beethoven in their quintets, was not entirely unprecedented. Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) himself a cellist, had done so before, but had written the extra cello part relatively high in the range, i.e., as a viola in all but name. Schubert, by contrast, makes full use of the extra cello’s baritone timbre to add a dark but richly burnished lustre to the lower regions of the ensemble, and in so doing strides boldly towards a symphonic ideal of sound in this chamber genre.

This symphonic ideal is evident in the many passages of throbbing repeated notes that keep the string sonority ringing in your ears while important melodic events are presented in other instruments. This ideal plays out as well in his varied treatment of instrumental sub-groups as orchestral ‘choirs’ that parallel the established division of orchestral forces into strings, winds, brass and percussion.

That the qualities of pure sound are uppermost in his mind is evident from the way in which the work begins. Schubert offers us a static representation, without a regular rhythmic pulse, of the structuring harmonies that will undergird his roughly textured first theme, the eventual arrival of which is made to seem all the more disruptive by contrast with the placid opening bars. Where the listener is especially grateful for the expansion of musical forces in this quintet is in the glorious second theme, presented in a cello duet with an almost Brahmsian luxuriance of phrasing, its gently swaying melodic line in 6ths exquisitely perfumed with a sentimentality and sophistication uniquely Viennese. The long development section is kept coherent by Schubert’s skillful alternation of instrumental groupings amid which the return of the opening material in the recapitulation materializes as if by magic.

The slow second movement, like that of the C minor Sonata, is a real Adagio. It presents a triptych of contrasting moods with two otherworldly outer sections bookending a middle section of dramatic (almost melodramatic) intensity of feeling, with gasping, off-beat accompaniment figures fretting anxiously between a nervously active bass line and a urgently pleading melody in the first violin. The emotional range of this movement is astonishing.

An unheard-of volume of sound explodes from the 3rd movement scherzo, that begins with 9-voice chords made all the more resonant by the use of open strings (C – G – D). The sounds of hunting horns and galloping hooves abound in this movement, contrasting starkly with the subdued, elegiac tone of the middle section trio.

The work is rounded out with a sonata-rondo dance finale of distinctly Hungarian flavour with a heavy peasant stamp, expressed in thumping offbeat accents, major-minor tonal ambivalence, a race-to-the-finish accelerando, and a final ‘smudgy’ D-flat-to-C crush-note ending that Brahms would later appropriate for the final bar of his F minor Quintet scherzo.

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Mark Padmore & Paul Lewis

The age of the German lied, an art-song for solo voice with piano accompaniment, extends from the first songs of Schubert (1814) to the last songs of Hugo Wolf (1897). Its emergence in the early part of the 19th century was strongly influenced by literary Romanticism, and it is not a coincidence that lyric poems by Romantic literary giants such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) figure largely in the repertoire.

The emphasis in the Romantic movement on the psychology of the solitary individual, along with its admiration of folklore and its worshipful yearning for communion with Nature, seemed tailor-made for musical setting, with the solo singer as the archetypal Romantic hero. At the same time, the piano was undergoing major improvements which increased its range, its strength of tone, and its expressive potential, making it a miniature orchestra capable of providing a theatrical ‘backdrop’ behind the singer’s voice, or even of engaging with the singer in dramatic dialogue. It could thunder, it could whisper, it could echo the singer’s sentiments, making every song, in effect, a dramatic duet between singer and piano.

The elevation of song to the realm of high art paralleled the rise of bourgeois patronage in the arts, and so one further element in the lied’s success was the setting of its performance. In keeping with the celebration of home entertaining and cozy family life that characterized the Biedermeyer period in central Europe (1815-1848), the new temple of Art where this new art-form flourished was not the aristocratic palace, nor the public concert hall, but the domestic drawing room. And because the lied addressed its audience on terms of social intimacy, it often contains subtleties of expression that amply repay close listening.

Robert Schumann
Liederkreis Op. 24

After spending the 1830s concentrating exclusively on composing for the piano, Schumann finally burst into song in the year 1840, producing in this year alone more than 125 songs—over half his lifetime output. His penchant for composing epic cycles of piano music comprising a succession of evocative scenes rather than in a continuous narrative (Papillons, Carnaval, Kreisleriana) is evident in the way he structures his Liederkreis Op. 24 as a series of mood portraits, intended to be played as a unit. The songs are connected by a number of recurring musical motifs, but lack a central plot, per se. More song collection than song cycle, the Liederkreis presents us with a kind of musical ‘drone footage’ circling round a distraught young lover, depicting the suffering and anxieties that an amorous affliction is causing him.

Schumann had ample reason to sympathize with the protagonist of these songs as his own love life was beset with the same frustrations and uncertainties.

Having given up hope of obtaining parental permission to marry the 20-year old Clara Wieck, he had taken her father to court to settle the matter and the legal proceedings were ongoing as he wrote the Liederkreis. The lyric poems he was setting from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827) must have had an extraordinary resonance with him, speaking as they do of the anxieties and doubts that young love brings.

The composer’s self-confessed alter egos, the dreamer Eusebius and the passionate Florestan, are much in evidence in this collection, their contrasting psychological states being introduced in the first two songs, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage and Es treibt mich hin, es triebt mich her. The piano is a major supporting actor in this work, adding muscular resolve in the grimly determined Warte, warte wilder Schiffmann and a picturesque depiction of the Rhein river’s undulating waves in the placid Berg’ und Burgen schau’n herunter. Long postludes allow the piano to have the last word in many scenes, painting it as the more knowing and more emotionally balanced of the performing pair.

The penultimate song, Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen, is the most unusual of the collection. It is based on the Lutheran chorale melody Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten that expresses quiet faith in Providence.

Johannes Brahms
Lieder to texts by Heinrich Heine

Brahms’ song writing has been criticized by some as too instrumental in conception to be effective as vocal music. He is more concerned, it is said, with the shape of his melodies and the complexities of his textures than with the need for speech-like rhythm and musical illustration of the text. And yet his melodic ideal was the simple folksong, and his textures respond vividly to the poetic images they support in music, no matter how motivically dense their musical structure may be.

An example of this ‘abstract but illustrative’ craft is given in Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze (How lovely to love in spring), which begins in the piano with a rippling image of waves, in imitation of the river beside which the song’s shepherdess is sitting. But this piano figuration is also a mirror image, in smaller note values, of the simple folklike melody that soon enters. At the mention of the wreaths (Kränze) that the shepherdess is weaving, the vocal melody gets interwoven with not one, but two countermelodies in the piano part. The arrival of the cantering horseman provokes a change to a triplet rhythmic pulse, but the shepherdess’ reaction to him blends both duple (her) rhythm with triple (his) in an ingenious use of texture to engage with the poetic text.

Details such as these abound in these songs. It would be correct to say, however, that Brahms gives the piano an important role in varying the texture of the vocal-instrumental duet. Indeed, in his moody and intense rendering of Heine’s Meerfahrt (Sea voyage) the piano holds forth for a full page of score before the voice first enters, and in many passages pulls the song along with its own momentum.

Instrumentally conceived as well are the two-against-three accompaniment patterns, common in Brahms’ piano music, that make these songs so richly textured. Most Brahmsian of all is the gentle lullaby mood that pervades the first two songs of Op. 85, Sommerabend (Summer evening) and Mondenschein (Moonlight), which share not only a common central melody, but a similarly delicate, intriguingly complex piano accompaniment.

Franz Schubert
Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It was Franz Schubert’s imaginative settings of Romantic poetry, with its everpresent nature imagery and fixation on the psychology of the lonely outsider, that elevated the German lied to the status of high art. With melodies that ranged in style from the tunefulness of folksong to the operatic intensity of whispered recitative, he combined a gift for vocal writing with the pianistic imagination of a theatrical scene painter to reveal a new expressive potential in the simple pairing of solo voice and piano. The poems of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe provided him with texts that stimulated his imagination to a fever pitch, as demonstrated in the selections on this afternoon’s program.

An den Mond (To the moon) is a song of adoration tinged with more than a hint of sadness, as intimated by the sigh motives in the piano introduction and in the vocal line throughout. The moon is a blessed giver of light in the darkness but a somewhat distant source of consolation for one afflicted with earthly troubles, as represented by the raging river in the song’s more turbulent middle section. By doubling the singer’s voice in the piano, Schubert adds a metallic timbre to the melody line, emblematic of the moon’s cool radiance and its impassive noninterference in human affairs.

Meeres Stille (Calm sea) is starkly minimalist, with every expressive dimension muted in sympathy with the idea of oceanic stillness that is the poem’s central image. The song unfolds in a hushed pianissimo, within a limited vocal range, at a slow, but steady and unvarying pace, the entire accompaniment a single rolling arpeggio at the beginning of each bar suggestive of a light ripple on the surface of the water. The eerie mood of this song is double-sided, its peaceful surface implying fearful depths below.

The theme of loneliness is explicitly explored in Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Who gives himself to loneliness). Advancing the curious conceit that you are never alone as long as you have your own loneliness to keep you company, it travels meditatively through this thought to its logical consequence: an acceptance of the relief that death will provide. This grim reality is reinforced by a passacaglia-type descending bass line with a distinctly Baroque feel.

Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß (Who never ate his bread with tears) continues the depiction of earthly existence as a vale of tears but its mood, while initially reserved, is hardly one of resignation. With a nobility of utterance reminiscent of Gluck, the singer challenges the justness of the ‘heavenly powers’ who leave men to suffer so much. Their shockingly stern reply is given by the piano in the final bars.

The wandering mendicant is the subject of An die Türen will ich schleichen (I’ll steal from door to door). The piano accompaniment of steady quarter notes is brilliantly multidimensional: both a pictorial representation of the beggar’s continual travels on foot, and an anthem-like hymn, troubled by constant chromatic alterations.

An Schwager Kronos (To coachman Chronos) is a bumpy but exhilarating coachride headlong into life, complete with all the stages of youthful exuberance, bracing maturity, and the thought of impending death defiantly faced, and even mocked. A constant pulse of triplet 8th notes keeps the coach-ride rhythmically vivid throughout while the declamatory style of the vocal line rises triumphantly above it.

Hugo Wolf
Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The closing scene of the age of German lieder was played out by Hugo Wolf, a fervent Wagnerian and arch-enemy of Brahmsian conservatism. While he packaged his terse, intensely expressive poetic settings within the framework of the traditional lied, his boldly chromatic treatment of poetic texts provided a glimpse into developments to come in the 12-tone techniques of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and company. Wandering with unprecedented freedom from key to key, he followed the poetic text with feverish concentration, tracing its psychological tension with finely etched musical details. Music, he said, was like a vampire sucking the life’s blood out of poetry and in his own performances, he insisted on reciting the original poem to his audience before singing it. Although theoretically music takes a backseat to the poetic text in his works, there is undoubtedly a lot of back-seat driving going on in the way they develop. These songs all derive from his collection of Goethe-Lieder published in 1890, when he was at the height of his creative powers.

Der Rattenfänger (The rat-catcher) takes up the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but this rat-chaser is an equal-opportunity abuser of rats, young children and young women. The piano scampers mischievously, evoking both his magical powers and the line of bewitched subjects trailing behind him. The rapid patter of this shamelessly jolly braggart is riveting: Rossini’s Figaro meets Bad Cop.

A lover’s repeated act of bending down to pluck a flower ‘a thousand times’ is painted by the repeated bowing gestures of the piano in Blumengruß, a song less fraught with angst than most.

Gleich und Gleich (Like to like) is an ode to the symbiotic relationship between flower and bee. The piano’s cutesy introduction, with its high, tinkling imitation of the flower ‘bell’ and its sudden melodic drop (representing the bee’s plunging in to drink its fill) occurs throughout. A sexual subtext is not hard to find here. This is the birds and the bees talk for the horticulturally inclined.

The Phänomen (Phenomenon) offers hope to those well on in years that love still awaits, just on the other side of a rainbow colourfully painted in boldly chromatic tones.

Anakreon’s Grab (Anacreon’s grave) is an elegy to the memory of the ancient Greek poet of love and revelry. The garlands bedecking his grave are lovingly painted by gentle cascades of harmonic colour in the piano.

Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sie? (Has the Koran existed for all time?) marks a rare incursion on the part of German art music into the field of Islamic theology, if only in jest. The rhetorical question stridently posed in unison by voice and piano as the work opens finds a blasphemous answer more congenial to both as it ends: it is better to face God tipsy than sober.

The final trio of lieder expands, in ever more exuberant fashion, on the pleasures of drink. Trinken müssen wir alle sein! (We must all be drunk!) is a rousing drinking song with the swinging arms of flagon-holding pub patrons vividly imitated by the rocking rhythms of the piano accompaniment. The march-like fervour of So lang man nüchtern ist (As long as we are sober) has an ironic cabaret-like feel, while Sie haben wegen der Trunkenkeit (They accuse me of drunkenness) mournfully expands the definition of inebriation to include the effects of love and poetry, with the implicit moral at the end: it’s all good. All hell breaks loose in the final song, Was in der Schenke waren heute (What a commotion at the inn), a raucous evocation of an alcohol-fuelled pub fight with a manically pulsating piano ostinato to rival Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio

Franz Joseph Haydn
Piano Trio in F sharp minor, Hob. XV/26

Haydn’s piano trios are really just accompanied piano sonatas, with the cello doubling the bass line and the violin the melody on top. Such a stylistically regressive texture, so unlike the string quartet’s ideal of conversation between musical equals, nevertheless had its advantages. As Charles Rosen has pointed out, these doublings compensated for the thinness of tone in the contemporary fortepiano, allowing the instrument to shine where it could produce the greatest effect—in the creation of sparkling passagework. Indeed, Rosen writes that Haydn’s piano trios are, “along with the Mozart concertos the most brilliant piano works before Beethoven.”

Display vehicles such as these from the pen of a fashionable composer were much in demand, and there were many pianists, women pianists in particular, panting in the wings to play them. Or perhaps just panting after Haydn himself. For the composer’s trips to London in the 1790s had shown him to be a ‘player’ in more than the strictly instrumental sense of the term. To judge by the four sets of piano trios he dedicated to four different women with whom he was on terms of varying intimacy in the English capital.

His F sharp minor Trio dates from his second English sojourn (1794–95), one of a set of three trios dedicated to Rebecca Schroeter, a wealthy British widow with whom Haydn was having an affair. The work displays the relaxed tone that the trio genre had developed in Haydn’s hands, its informality crowned by the dance-like minuet that serves as its finale.

The opening Allegro makes little, at first, of the unusual key of F sharp minor in which it is set, ducking at the first opportunity into A major, a more congenial tonality for the churning passagework and cascades of runs that follow. Haydn may not have showered his lovers with glittering diamonds, but they never lacked for sparkling runs, which he doled out with a liberal hand. The development section ups the drama quotient considerably, with modulatory wanderings into rather remote keys, adding punch to the proceedings with off-beat accents and echoing dynamics.

The following Adagio cantabile returns to the sweetness of the major mode in the sharp-encrusted key of F sharp major, and it is in this movement that the violin gets to shine briefly in the spotlight, taking over from the piano to extend the principal melody out for its leisurely second strain. The main focus of this tender, but slightly mysterious movement remains, however, on the iridescent tonal colouring of the piano’s decorative filigree in the high register of the keyboard.

The Minuetto finale is an intriguing little piece, more serious in tone than would have been expected for a dance movement. While its dotted rhythms maintain a Program Notes II 17 tone of apparent cheer throughout, the overall impression is one of suspense as a result of the dark colouring of the minor mode, the dramatic leap of a diminished 7th in the opening melody, and the frequent use of the low keyboard range. Even the major-mode trio, based on the same thematic material, does little to dispel the sense of mystery, and the sonata-like coda at the end only deepens it.


Ernest Chausson
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3

Ernest Chausson was a composer of solid academic credentials but small output, perhaps because of the financial ease in which he lived. He didn’t compose because he had to, but because he wanted to. He is best known today for his songs, especially Le Temps des lilas, and his Poème for violin and orchestra, works that situate him squarely in the French school of clear, transparent textures, vaporous poetic conceits, and the pursuit of fleeting moments of melodic charm.

But he was also a composer much alive to the musical currents of his time. His studies with César Franck left him much impressed with that composer’s use of cyclic form, a compositional approach that sees prominent themes and motives recur in the various movements of a work. Equally influential was his admiration for the grandiose visions and harmonic boldness of Wagner.

All of these enthusiasms find an outlet in his first major work, his Op. 3, the Piano Trio in G minor, composed in 1881 when Chausson was in his mid-twenties. Its general cast of gloominess may have been influenced by his recent failure to qualify for the Prix de Rome competition for composers, and its aggressive emotional volatility by a desire to prove the judges wrong with a display of compositional prowess in a work of major proportions.

Setting the stage for this four-movement essay in cyclic form is the first movement’s opening section, Pas trop lent, which introduces the constituent elements and cells of melody that will be cycled through the work: a thick rumble of arpeggiated chords in the low register of the piano, a repeated-note fanfare and chromatic descent in the cello, and a quietly yearning melody in the violin, full of wistfully drooping thirds. These elements inform the melodic strands permeating the following Animé section of the movement, in sonata form. In this main section it is the strings above all that draw the rapturous lyrical consequences of the opening introduction’s melodic materials while the piano lays down an endless flow of imaginative figurations that keeps them enveloped in a near-constant sonic wrap of piano sonority extending over several octaves of the keyboard. And, in case you forgot where it all started, the movement ends drilling home the importance of the opening’s repeated-note fanfare.

The following scherzo, Vite, is the only movement not overtly quoting cyclical material. It begins playfully coy about its intentions before breaking into a jaunty tune spun out against a pulsing background of rhythmic patter. Part of the charm in this movement is how the strings’ impulse to sing out with a sustained melody is undercut by the chirping of twinkling grace notes in the piano.

The slow movement, Assez lent, is a brooding elegy that takes as its point of departure the ‘drooping thirds’ melody presented at the opening of the first movement. Delicately textured in its outer sections, it rises in its middle section to a paroxysm of passion, led by urgings of the strings in unison over increasingly agitated piano figuration.

The Animé finale is the most dramatic movement of the work, a cruel set-up that begins in blithe good spirits but grows increasingly sombre with the remembrance of darker material from the first movement. Its opening gambit is a lilting waltz of music-hall tunefulness in a carefree G major that, bit by bit, becomes more drawn to the minor side of its character, passing through moments of tender recall and lyrical introspection along the way. The work ends with a full-on reprise of the first movement’s introductory motives, abruptly dismissed with a final flourish.


Felix Mendelssohn
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

Felix Mendelssohn was something of an odd figure for his time. He had the musical brilliance of a child prodigy but lacked the tragic back-story and ever-present threat of social marginalization that was thought to dog the ‘real’ Romantic artist. Healthy, wealthy, and happily married, he sailed through his short life the darling of mainstream society (Queen Victoria adored him) in an age in which ‘struggle’ was the watchword of artistic integrity and the guarantor of aesthetic merit. He was Schumann without the delirium, Chopin without the cough, Liszt without the mistresses and unruly hair.

The perfection of his musical craft is well represented by his Piano Trio in D minor of 1839. In this four-movement work we find all the qualities that link him to the style and manner of the 18th century: regularly-shaped phrases, an effortless command of sonata form, and an impeccable sense of decorum in musical expression. But within this exquisitely chiming Mozartean music-box of crystalline structures, unfolding with the breezy assurance of the polished after-dinner speaker, we find as well a love of lyrical, singable melody and a virtuoso’s command of the keyboard that identify him as a charter member of the Romantic movement.

The first movement is marked Molto allegro agitato, the sense of agitation conveyed through pulsing syncopations in the piano as the cello, and then the violin, presents the expansive, slightly anxious opening theme. This texture of evenly paced quarter notes (or longer) in the strings over a burbling of much faster figuration in the piano will dominate the movement as a whole. Both principal themes are songlike in their tunefulness, but the second is especially so. Its symmetrically balanced phrases, rising and falling like a heaving breast, are lovingly crooned by the intertwined voices of the violin and cello.

To make up for the lack of a repeat of the exposition, Mendelssohn, with faultless courtesy, kindly begins the development section with both themes presented again 19 in their entirety before chewing them up in fragments. The recapitulation is notable for the elegant countermelody with which the violin accompanies the cello in its initial go-through of the movement’s first theme.

The following Andante con moto tranquillo is a Mendelssohnian song without words, introduced in the piano in the three-layered texture typical of this genre: a right-hand melody singing out over an accompaniment split between the hands. The theme itself is gentle and warmly intimate, exquisitely evocative of Biedermeyer contentment with a touch of sweet longing. In the contrasting middle section, set in the minor mode, this movement progresses ever so gradually from an 8th-note pulse, to triplet 8ths, and then to 16ths in its exploration of the gentler emotions.

Mendelssohn’s scherzos became the name brand in ‘cute’ musical scamper in 19th-century instrumental music and this trio’s Leggiero e vivace does not disappoint. The use of the high register in the piano adds timbral brilliance to the rhythmic sparkle of the repetitive pattern that pervades the texture throughout, occasionally supplemented by some punchy keyboard muscle. A central episode in the minor mode provides contrast, making up for the lack of a formal trio section.

The finale, Allegro assai appassionato, begins with the piano offering up a deceptively simple chordal statement of small melodic range in a repetitive dactylic (LONG-short-short) pattern. This innocent little mini-march soon gathers momentum, however, when taken over by the strings and supported by a dizzying array of brilliant piano figurations. Two moderately-paced episodes of lyrical reflection intervene to slow the pace, eventually pushing the tonality into the major mode, but fail to blunt the movement’s propulsive energy and the work ends in a blaze of piano octaves and a crescendo of throbbing string tremolos.

Donald G. Gislason 2016


Program Notes: Richard Goode

Bach: Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, BWV 870

Among the chores assigned to the prelude in the time of Bach were those of catching the listener’s attention, establishing the tonality of the following (presumably more important) piece, and in the process, warming up the player’s hands with a bit of free-form noodling. All this the Prelude in C major that opens Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1744) accomplishes with ease.

Anyone doubting that this piece is in C has obviously missed the resounding octave pedal on that note that begins the work, held sonorously for two full bars as the right hand outlines a filigree of filled-in harmonies heavily imprinted with the two motives that will recur constantly as the piece progresses: a short rising scale figure in 16th notes, and its inversion, a descending scale fragment in 32nds. The sonic fullness provided by the piece’s four active voices gives it a stately grandeur reminiscent of organ music.

The following three-voice fugue is spritely and cheerful, thanks mainly to the joyful leap of a 6th, crowned with a chirpy mordent, in its opening subject, and the train of chattering 16ths that follows it everywhere. Bach declines to use arcane contrapuntal devices in this fugue, creating variety instead by variations in texture, including a long stretch in two voices alone, and by changes of register.

Bach: French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816

Bach’s French Suites date from the early 1720s straddling his time as Kapellmeister in the secular court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen and his first years as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. The name ‘French’ did not originate with Bach and only appeared after his death, but the set is distinguished from the socalled ‘English’ Suites (also a misnomer) by their lack of an initial prelude, their tighter more compact construction, and by an emphasis on stylistic elegance and singable melody typical of the French style galant.

The French Suite No. 5 is representative of the collection as a whole in its avoidance of imitative counterpoint and of thick keyboard textures in general. It has a joyousness and directness of appeal that derives in large part from the rhythmic buoyancy of its faster-paced movements, a quality that makes them seem less stylized and more genuinely dancelike.

The Allemande is not one of these, however. This dance of German origin is moderate in tempo, conversational (but not light) in tone, with irregular phrase lengths and a texture much influenced by the ‘broken style’ (style brisé) of French lute-playing.

The following Courante, so-named for its free-flowing character, is much more pronounced in rhythm, especially in this Italian corrente variant, with its propulsive forward drive and rushing surges of runs.

The gravely dignified Sarabande slows down the pace considerably. This courtly dance in triple metre has really only two beats, of different lengths: the first beat, and the second and third combined, giving an end-weighted quality to each bar. Bach’s use of an ascetically spare texture here allows for fulsome ornamentation to be added by the performer.

As galanteries, the optional movements between the sarabande and the gigue, Bach adds a gavotte, a bourrée and a rare loure. The strutting Gavotte is so rhythmically compelling as to be almost a goose-step. The Bourée, by contrast, is fleet-footed and driven, despite its many hops. The Loure is a kind of slow French gigue with dotted rhythms heavily accenting the strong beats of the bar.

Bach’s concluding Gigue is of the Italian variety, a whirlwind romp of triadic figures echoing through each voice in a constant chatter with clear, regular phrasing and convincing forward momentum. Listeners can be forgiven for wanting to yell yee-haw! at the end of each section, as this is as close as Baroque music gets to a stomping hoedown.

Bach: 15 Sinfonias, BWV 787-801

Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein (1723), a collection of keyboard pieces compiled for the musical education of his son Wilhelm Friedrich, includes 15 two-part inventions (fantasy pieces developing a single ‘invented’ musical idea) and 15 in three parts, called sinfonias. The aim of these teaching pieces is not only to develop the digital dexterity required to play polyphonic keyboard works, but also to encourage the imagination by demonstrating the various ways in which musical ideas can be treated compositionally, with special emphasis on the use of invertible counterpoint, i.e., writing melodies that sound equally good whether played above or below other melodies.

For the most part, it is the upper two voices in the three-part sinfonias where contrapuntal activity is most intense. The bass line is treated in a much freer manner than the other voices, to create an overall texture similar to that of the Baroque trio sonata. Each sinfonia begins in a quasi-fugal manner, with two voices starting off together, subsequently joined by the third.

Among these pieces, some stand out for their unusual character. The fifth in E flat makes little use of imitation, being simply a gracious duet between the two upper voices over a repeated figure in the bass. The ninth in F minor is an astonishingly emotional depiction of grief beginning with a chromatically descending ‘lament’ bass in the style of a passacaglia and featuring many sigh motives and smaller figures of a pleading character. The last in B minor features a whirlwind of florid passagework requiring a high degree of fancy fingerwork.

Bach: Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F major, BWV 880

The pairing of specific preludes with the fugues that follow them in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has often been thought casual, a mix-and-match affair that even Glenn Gould said he didn’t always find convincing. Not so the Prelude and Fugue in F major from Book II, a balanced set of compositional studies in widely divergent styles linked by a significant musical motive in common.

Surprisingly, it is the prelude that is the more thickly textured and contrapuntally involved of the two. Written as a free fantasy in the improvisatory style of the French unmeasured prelude (but without the elaborate ornamentation), it presents a continuous flow of 8th notes emerging from various voices in turn, circling in short groups around the constituent notes of its slow-moving harmonic pattern. Echoing throughout is the melodic curve of rising and falling scale notes announced in the opening bar. With as many as five, and never fewer than three, voices active at a time, this prelude is designed to fill a room with sound and has prompted organists to adopt it into their repertoire.

The fugue, by contrast, is a much less turgid affair. ‘Nimble,’ in fact, would suffice to describe it, with a segmented subject comprising two merry leaping figures, separated by rests, followed by a trailing patter of scale notes in the up-and-down shape of the Prelude’s opening melody. This is not a ‘learned’ fugue by any means but more of a ‘dance’ fugue. The arcane devices of contrapuntal manipulation are virtually ignored in favour of emphasizing the rollicking rhythm and propulsive forward motion that make this fugue a sibling to the French Suite No. 5’s final gigue.

Bach: Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826

From 1726 to 1731 Bach published six partitas (another name for suite) at a rate of one per year as the first part of a collection that he called Clavierübung , i.e., ‘keyboard exercise’. And a good deal of exercise they provided to the middle-class amateur musicians that were their target audience. Remarkable for the extreme technical demands they place on the performer, these partitas also differ from Bach’s previous ‘English’ and ‘French’ suites in the choice of movements they add to the traditional sequence of dances: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.

The second of the set, the Partita in C minor, is among the most eccentric in this regard. It begins in a tone of high seriousness with a Sinfonia (in the sense of overture) in three sections, moving from an austere and highly dissonant French overture-type introduction to a more congenial Andante section featuring a highly decorative melody over a walking bass line, and concluding with a lively and animated two-part fugue—an astonishing progression of moods that defines the ambitious scope of this suite.

The moderately paced Allemande that follows is much less dramatic. More akin to a civilized conversation between two (occasionally three) musical voices, it proceeds in an even flow of 16th notes, making much of its initial motive, a rising scale figure.

The Courante is more emphatic and assertive but at the same time much harder to pin down rhythmically, due to an intricate web of restlessly roaming melodic lines that keep you guessing where the strong first beat of the bar is. The Sarabande, while simpler in texture, is similarly slippery, its normal emphasis on the second beat of the bar being effectively masked by a continuous, soothing flow of 16th notes.

The Rondeau is structured in a succession of couplets, like the verses of a strophic poem. The first of these, with its characteristic bold leaping intervals, is used as a recurring refrain. To conclude, Bach gives us a Capriccio, so named, perhaps, for its whimsical emphasis on leaps, although much of the texture is fugal in character. Like the traditional gigue that it replaces in this position, it is laid out in two clear halves, with its principal motives inverted in the second half.

Bach: Italian Concerto, BWV 971

Baroque music was all about national styles and Bach learned the Italian style by copying out and transcribing the works of composers such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Torelli during his early years of employment in Weimar (1708-1717). It was this knowledge that he applied in composing his Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto after the Italian Taste) included in the second part of his Clavierübung published in 1735.

To compose a ‘concerto’ for a solo instrument meant reproducing in some way the textural contrast between solo instrument and orchestral tutti on which the ritornello form of the Italian concerto relied for its forward progress. It was for this reason that Clavierübung II was written exclusively for the two-manual harpsichord, with its possibility of creating dynamic contrasts by means of hopping up and down between keyboards—with both hands at once, or one hand at a time, allowing for a wide range of effects to be achieved.

The two protagonists in Bach’s Italian Concerto are clearly audible in the first movement, in which the ‘orchestra’ which opens the movement is given a fuller more resonant texture by dint of block chords and a wider range in the bass while the part of the ‘soloist’ is written in a smaller range, higher up, peppered with smaller note values and occasional ornamentation.

The distinction is even clearer still in the slow movement in which the role of the orchestra is given entirely to the left hand, its ostinato pattern of repeated thirds and long pedal notes a strangely austere accompaniment to a right-hand soloist spinning out long strands of highly ornamented melody.

The Presto finale returns to the ritornello form of alternation between the louder, fuller texture of the orchestra, obsessed with a theme comprised of a dramatic leap and swift follow-up run, in continual dialogue with a more nimble soloist more occupied with broken chord passagework and harmonic sequences.

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Tetzlaff Trio

Robert Schumann
Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80

Robert Schumann began composing in the 1830s, a time when the formation of a canon of great musical works was just beginning, thanks to new publications of older music and to concerts of ‘historical’ or ‘antique’ music such as Mendelssohn’s famous performance of Bach St. Matthew Passion in 1829. The place of these great works in musical culture was a matter of serious concern to Schumann who, while proposing a music of the future inspired by the poetic imagination, still believed that such music ought to be “a higher echo of the past.”

Schumann was all about musical content and a sworn enemy of musical flash of the sort peddled by the fashionable pianists of Paris flooding the market with cheap, display-oriented sets of variations and potpourris. It is not a coincidence then, that Schumann’s Piano Trio in F, composed in 1847, hovers insistently around the midrange, resisting the temptation to show off the higher, more brilliant higher regions of his instruments.

The three composers most influential in the development of Schumann’s style were Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. From Schubert he admired the flights of fancy and “logical discontinuities” that drove the Viennese composer’s music to such “heavenly length.” In Beethoven he found a compelling motivic logic hidden beneath a determined harmonic drive. And in Bach, well, in Bach he found everything: contrapuntal logic, harmonic drive, and what he most admired—poetry.

The shadow of these three composers falls over the Piano Trio in F in ways that give the measure of Schumann’s achievements as a new musical thinker in a new musical age. The first movement, Sehr lebhaft (very lively), is largely pianodominated, with the violin and cello mostly playing in parallel. The mood is upbeat but not light or frivolous: the opening leap and continuing emphasis on the second beat of the bar adds a degree of weight to the proceedings. But phrases never seem to want to end or cadence, especially after the solo piano introduces a calmer second theme area. There always seems to be some last-minute harmonic excuse to carry on. Schumann actually combines a Schubertian extension of thought with a Beethovenian forward drive—no mean accomplishment. And as for Bach, the forthright imitative texture of the development section pays worthy homage to the master of Leipzig, while never sinking into mere Baroque parody.

The slow movement, Mit innigem Ausdruck (with inner expression), is more Bachian still, but just as Romantic. See if you can hear the canonic imitation between the rising lines of the cello and piano at the opening, cleverly hidden in the low regions while an attractive, slowly descending melodic line catches the listener’s attention in the treble. This movement is a ‘variation fantasy’ that develops these two lines of melody presented simultaneously in the first bars.

The third movement, In mässiger Bewegung (at a moderate pace), begins in canon between the three voices. It is not really a scherzo, but more of a nostalgic, slightly mysterious intermezzo of the sort that Brahms would later write in his Third Symphony. Its ‘trio’ middle section is more active, but hardly less imitative.

The last movement, Nicht zu rasch (not too quick), is a tour-de-force of inventive contrapuntal writing that presents two thematic elements at the outset: a rising scale in the cello and piano (in imitation, of course) and a more jaunty theme in a dotted rhythm in the violin. These two elements are continuously varied and set in a dazzling array of imitative textures. Despite the number of fugato episodes that break out, this movement never seems to lose its eminently Romantic character.

Antonin Dvořák
Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 “Dumky”

Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio is closer in form to a Baroque dance suite than it is to a late-Romantic work for three chamber musicians. Ignoring traditional sonata form entirely, it comprises six successive examples of the dumka (plural: dumky), a folk genre likely of Ukrainian origin popular in Poland and Bohemia in the 19th century. Dumka means “a fleeting thought” and the musical genre that bears this name evokes the volatility of feeling that characterizes the Slavic soul in an emotionally charged reverie. Each dumka alternates between a brooding melancholy and sharply contrasting interludes of dancelike exuberance.

Freed from the constraints of a pre-ordained formal plan, Dvořák structures his pieces by the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate emotional states, although many of the faster sections in fact turn out to be transformed variants of preceding slower material. This trio is one of Dvořák’s most popular works, attractive in its constant stream of lyrical moments and its variety of textures and instrumental colours. Each instrument evokes the personality of a real village musician, and in this work each gets a place in the sun to shine.

The first dumka (Lento maestoso) begins as if in the middle of something, as if we had just walked into a room where music was already playing. The cello begins its lament over sympathetic whimpers from the piano and is soon joined by the violin in an exchange of wide-arching melodic 6ths. Contrast soon comes in the form of a delirious hopping dance tune, but it’s not really all that different, as the cello continues unperturbed with its pattern of 6ths, knitting the two sections together with a common motive.

The 2nd dumka (Poco adagio) exudes an air of suspended animation until the piano begins a peaceful lullaby à la Brahms. This elegiac tone alternates with a sparkling tune bristling with mordent figures that builds and builds into a freewheeling and slightly mischievous furioso.

The following Andante begins with a soothing introduction of stationary chords that lead to an unusually spare statement by the the piano: a single line in the right hand that softly sings out its delicately tune like a faraway voice heard coming from somewhere on a distant mountainside. This one tune will generate all the transformations of mood in this moderately paced dumka.

A similar economy of motive is evident in the Andante moderato (quasi tempo di marcia) that opens in a spirit of calm reflection with the cello holding forth against ostinato figures in the piano and violin. Featuring a number of short sections, this fourth dumka, while occasionally sighing expansively in lyrical exaltation, remains nevertheless largely elegiac in tone throughout.

The Allegro fifth dumka is the closest movement to a scherzo in the trio as a whole, with its relatively quick pace and the rhythmic interest provided by its alternation between 6/8 duple and 3/4 triple metric patterning. Contrast is provided by slower, more recitative-like passages.

The central point of interest in the rollicking concluding dumka is how a childlike tune in rocking 3rds and 4ths gets transformed into so many different variants, from the mocking schoolyard taunt with which it begins to the vigorous stomping dance that ends the work on a note of defiant, muscular merriment.

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has an intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remain starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Igor Levit

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828

The Baroque suite was the iPod shuffle of its time. It was a colourful bowl of musical Smarties with a cosmopolitan flavour, offering a collection of dances from all the major musical nations of Europe: the moderately-paced allemande from Germany, the much animated courante from France (or its cousin, the corrente from Italy), the stately sarabande from Spain, and the leaping, if not outright pole-vaulting gigue (jig) from England. An introductory piece was sometimes added at the beginning, and other optional dances such as the gavotte or minuet (the galanteries) were not infrequently inserted in the lead-up to the gigue finale.

Of course, no one put on their dancing shoes when these pieces were played. These were stylized dances for listening to, and for playing before company in middle-class homes, where keyboards were becoming the favourite family instruments for domestic entertainment. Among such works, however, the six suites that Bach published with the title Partitas in the first volume of his Clavierübung (1726-1731) were in a class all their own, boldly virtuosic both in contrapuntal construction and in the technical demands they make of the performer.

The Partita No. 4 in D major opens with a majestic French overture movement in the style popularized by Louis XIV’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, featuring a grandly strutting first section in the stop-and-start style of a ceremonial procession, embellished with breathless runs and bell-ringing trills, followed by a much nimbler fugal section in three-part imitative counterpoint. 

The Allemande that follows is deliriously ornate, only kept on the straight and narrow by the even pace of 8th notes measured out by its left-hand voices. The pace picks up in the Courante, with its fine embroidery of small broken-chord figures permeating the contrapuntal texture from top to bottom.

The Aria is marked by neatly doled out four-bar and eight-bar phrases in a radically simple, predominantly two-voice texture. The deeply self-involved Sarabande wanders far afield in its almost recitative-like philosophical musings over a walking bass, after which we are brought back into more rhythmically regular territory in the following Minuet.

The closing Gigue is an exhilarating display of contrapuntal skill mixing rollicking broken-chord figures and mischievous “ants-in-your-pants” running motives within a driving harmonic framework.

Franz Schubert
Moments Musicaux D. 780

The six Schubert pieces published in 1827 under the title Moments musicaux are rooted in Viennese social life, particularly that brand of informal home entertaining that involved singing, dancing, and someone holding forth at the piano—that someone very often being Schubert himself. The spirit of song is evident in these pieces in their many singable melodies and a keyboard texture that extends little beyond the singable range of the human voice. The spirit of the dance may be felt, as well, in their buoyant rhythms and numerous sectional repeats.

While the context of this music is social, Schubert’s own personality is distinctly audible within it, especially in his quicksilver changes in tonal colouring between major and minor, his melodies glinting with small chromatic inflections, and at the phrase level in the way in which he toys playfully with the listener’s harmonic expectations.

These traits are evident in the opening Moderato which, after a little yodel-call in the purest C major, slips nonchalantly into C minor, then E flat major, then G minor, then back to C again, all in the time it would take you to pour yourself a glass of Riesling and take the first sip.

The halting sicilienne rhythms of No. 2 in A flat major strike an enigmatic tone of repressed sadness. This sadness plaintively takes centre stage in a minor-mode middle section full of gentle pathos that swells into heart-rending cries of operatic passion.

The overtly dance-like No. 3 in F minor is the most popular piece of the set. It was previously published separately under the title Air russe. But what seems like a folk dance with a Slavic flavour in its minor-mode sections becomes unmistakably Viennese when the tonality turns major.

An even more radical contrast is presented in No. 4 in C # minor, which begins as a moto perpetuo with a layered Baroque texture of constant 16ths in the right hand against steady 8ths in the left, but in its middle section in the major mode it turns into a gently swaying dance tune.

The most dramatic of the six pieces is undoubtedly No. 5 in F minor with its ‘Erlkönig’ feel of riding over hill & dale on horseback. No. 6 in A flat major is heavy with emotion, as well, but in a different sense. By dint of constant repetition of its descending two-note motive, it heaves sigh after sigh, to end the set on a note of philosophic acceptance and resignation.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 (Tempest)

It says something about the dramatic and outright theatrical character of Beethoven’s musical ideas that so many of his piano sonatas have attracted descriptive titles, titles that have even usurped the place of opus-number identifiers in the case of such famous works as the Pathétique, the Moonlight, the Appassionata and Les Adieux. The motivation for calling Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor Op. 31, No. 2 The Tempest comes from his biographer, Anton Schindler, who believed the work to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play of the same name, although not all modern historians agree. 

Beethoven begins his sonata audaciously with a series of three musical gestures, at three different tempos, all on the very first line of the score. A slow, rolling arpeggio outlines a major chord (Largo), followed by an anxious series of mini-sighs furiously fretting away in a minor key (Allegro), and then another slow-down (Adagio) to come to a cadence. Well, Beethoven certainly has your attention now. What could be going on?

All is revealed when the movement gets underway. The arpeggio motive, rising up from the bass, appears as the first theme, but at a faster tempo. And the anxious mini-sighs return to fret again in the second theme. What appeared to be just an introduction actually turned out to be the key to the whole movement. It’s like coming to see the lord of the manor on a great country estate and finding that the impeccably dressed man leading you to the library isn’t the butler after all, he’s the lord of the manor himself. 

The dramatic tension in this movement is constant, with both first and second themes being set in the minor mode. Then there are those “girl-tied-to-the-railway-tracks” tremolos animating much of the silent movie you are picturing in your mind. And there are even episodes of operatic recitative just before the recapitulation, for added pathos. 

The second movement Adagio, by contrast, is the soul of stability in a major key (B flat) with not even a passing reference to the minor mode. Structured in sonata form without a development section, the textures in this movement evoke the various sections and instruments of an orchestra, especially the timpani-roll figure in the bass that eventually becomes an echo in the high register, as well.

While the first movement created its emotional payload by means of dramatic changes in tempo, the last movement gathers in intensity by the opposite means: its manic repetition of the same hypnotic figures at an eerily constant pace. It’s the aural equivalent of a circus house of mirrors in a Stephen King horror novel: you keep hearing the same pattern over and over again, as if you were going mad. Despite its gentle pace, this is really scary music, especially the ending, that just disappears down a fox hole at the bottom of the keyboard, as if a ghost had just left the room by passing through a wall.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83

Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were perhaps the last Russian composers to live out their creative lives according to the ideals of the Romantic era. Their world was one of individual artistic freedom with music viewed as the expression of personal emotion. They wrote under an open sky.

The low ceiling under which Soviet composers were made to work meant that their artistic message was available to audiences only after it had ricocheted off the walls of State ideology. With sincerity as collateral damage in the cultural crossfire, Russian musical rhetoric re-armed with the weapons of covert resistance. Thus many Sovietera works bristle with biting irony and a suspiciously patriotic flair for military rhythmic precision that might flatter the nation’s militant leaders while at the same serving as a warning to its population. Soviet composers, like their ideological jailers, were masters of double-think and their work was often tinged with suggestions of the grotesque.

Many of these qualities are evident in Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat, the second of his three “War Sonatas” written during WWII. Prokofiev was an admirer of the transparency and intellectual clarity of 18th-century music and his first movement Allegro inquieto takes as its model the Classical-era sonata with its lively and assertive first theme matched with a second theme of slower, more lyrical material. Much of the writing has the clarity of Scarlatti’s two-voice keyboard textures, sometimes even cut down to the bare bone in unisons between right and left hand, as in the opening measures.

But there the comparison to 18th-century procedure ends. Prokofiev’s first theme is spiky, angular and restless, his second theme area just as wandering but more meditative and contrapuntally self-absorbed. His harmonic vocabulary is persistently dissonant, rife with 7ths and 9ths, and in more active moments often encrusted with blurry tone clusters.

All the more startling, then, is the apparent sentimental “warmth” of the opening section of the second movement Andante caloroso. The melody, doubled in 10ths, is thought to be quoted from Schumann’s song Wehmut (sadness), but all resemblance is lost as it wanders through a bright forest of chromatic complications eventually to return to its original simplicity at the close of the movement.

The finale is a tour de force of percussive pianism, a toccata in 7/8 time written in the most diatonic language of all three movements—although its allegiance to the key of B flat, brutally hammered home at both ends of the keyboard in its final bars—seems motivated more by the cold logic of the guided missile than the nostalgia of the returning tonal emigré. Whether it summons up thoughts of the mechanical rhythms of Soviet industry, the implacable power of the KGB, or as Sviatoslav Richter, expressed it, the “lifeforce” that leads human struggle on to victory, this movement occupies a unique place at the summit of the piano repertoire.

Donald G. Gíslason