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PROGRAM NOTES:PAUL LEWIS (CONCERT 1)

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI: 50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London in 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso, Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi that Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by musicologist Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say, “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

But a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops with which it opened, but now with new frilly ornaments, the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication of “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those of his aristocratic audience whose eyelids might be drooping.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic hairpin turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly gets lost on the way.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Six Bagatelles Op. 126

Throughout his career Beethoven found the time and interest to compose small intimate pieces that placed limited demands on the performer. Every audience member knows one of these already: the ever-popular Für Elise. Some he published in collections, such as his Seven Bagatelles of Op. 33 published in 1803. A much larger set Op. 119, which Paul Lewis will be playing at his spring recital next year, came out in 1823.

The Six Bagatelles of Op. 126, though, were more than just a collection: they were a matched set, conceived of as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. More importantly, the set constitutes Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they were no mere baubles. Composed at the same time that he was working on the mighty Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, they display the concentration of musical thought that typifies his late style.

Typical of that style is a native fluency in contrapuntal writing paired with a freedom from formal constraints in applying it, along with a willingness to write his contrapuntal voices several octaves apart. Beethoven, the architect of massive great formal structures, shows himself in these pieces to be equally a master of the miniature, deftly creating an immediate impression with his opening gestures and developing his motives with unfettered originality.

No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is a noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section.

No. 4 in B minor has character and personality in spades. It contrasts a strongly driven contrapuntal opening section with a dreamy section that alternates with it. No. 5 in G major is quietly expressive, its continuous pattern of triplets gently varied by syncopations across the bar line. No. 6 in E flat opens and closes with a riotous churn of piano sound that sandwiches a much more poised in main section. This section starts out like a barcarolle, but then drifts off to explore a wealth of musical ideas, some of them coy and playful, others verging on pure sound theatre.

Johannes Brahms
Sechs Klavierstücke Op. 118

Brahms’ late works are often described as “autumnal.” They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.

The opening Intermezzo in A minor, arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm the very melodies it accompanies.

The second Intermezzo sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded. Its opening phrase eventually yields to its own melodic inversion and its middle section is woven through with canons.

The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.

In the Intermezzo in F minor, a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.

The Romanza sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

The Intermezzo that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in its spirit of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahm’s ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40

Haydn’s Sonata in G major Hob. XVI:40 is the first of three keyboard sonatas written in 1784 for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each sonata in the set is a two-movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young princess for lighter fare.

The G major Sonata’s first movement is a set of double variations, alternating between major and minor. Its Italian marking Allegretto innocente promises a theme of the utmost naiveté – and Haydn does not disappoint. The movement opens with a lilting tune of a pastoral character in 6/8 time, modestly proportioned and tastefully ornamented – the sort of thing that shepherdesses, and princesses, might delight in humming to themselves.

What follows is a study in character contrasts. The major variations noodle around the flowing 8th notes of the theme in lively patterns of 16ths, but the minor variations seem to be their evil twin. Concentrating instead on the detached notes of the theme, they use off beat accents, chromatic harmonies, extreme dynamic contrasts and sudden rhythmic accelerations to create moments of high drama.

The Presto finale is a gleefully zany romp that opens with two sections of mischievous scamper in the right hand over a steady pulse of chordal harmony in the left. After an episode of minor-mode drama in which the two hands fence for control of the narrative, the scampering sections return in full force. Haydn’s trademark wit shines through with deadpan silences, diversions to unexpected keys, and an absolutely preposterous cadence featuring a chirping crush-note in the high register comically answered by a booming echo in the bass, three octaves below.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: ALBAN GERHARDT & STEVEN OSBORNE

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008

The instrumental suite, with its predictable allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of dances and its un-predictable addition of various galanteries (minuets, bourrées, gavottes, etc.), was a staple of the Baroque.

Arising from neither of the period’s two great wellsprings of musical emotion – religious piety and operatic bombast – the subtext of the suite was social gaiety in an intimate setting, but not just any setting. The tone had more than a whiff of aristocratic elegance about it, its imaginary terpsichorean world being one of crisp court etiquette rather than rollicking village merriment. This was the music that housewives of the Baroque era’s rising middle class heard in their head as they reached for Hello magazine, or Majesty, in the checkout line at the local fishmonger’s.

In this context, the second of Bach’s set of six cello suites from ca. 1720 is a remarkable example of the genre. Written in a minor key, it constitutes an exceptionally dark and serious take on the dance culture of the French court, from which the religious and dramatic impulses of Lutheran Germany cannot be excluded as inspirational prompts in its creation.

The opening Prelude is homogenous in its texture of running 16th notes, from which a recurring habit of pausing on the second beat of the bar stands out
as a distinctly sarabande-like feature. Its opening arpeggio spelling out the D minor triad sets out a pattern of similar arpeggiated approaches to this second- beat pause that will pervade the movement as a whole, building tension in waves of melodic and harmonic sequences that seek ever higher ground.

The dances that follow are in binary form, each comprised of a first section that drifts away from the home key followed by a second section that returns to it, with each section played twice. The Allemande begins assertively, with
a quadruple stop that establishes its punchy style of rhythmic emphasis
that, combined with its wide range of motion, provides it an exceptionally rambunctious start to the dance set. The Courante hikes up the intensity a notch further in a driven moto perpetuo of virtually constant 16th-note motion.

The clear harmonic outlines of this breathless movement make it one of the most toe-tapping of the suite.

Darkest of the dark in this collection is the extraordinarily grave Sarabande, set in the deepest register of the instrument. A feeling of intense longing comes through in its long-held dissonances and its bewildered, searching phrases beset with anxious hand-wringing trills.

Minuets I & II form a matched pair of musical contrasts: the first in D minor, thickly scored in multiple stops but with an overtly dancelike lilt; the second in a contrasting D major, sparingly laid out in a single owing line of melody. We see in this pairing a precedent for the future matching of minuet & trio in the Classical era.

The concluding Gigue is true to its origins in the English or Irish jig, characterized by wild leaps, repetitive rhythms, and angular lines of melody that constantly change direction. Sombre as this suite is as a whole, its rollicking finale recaptures some of the genre’s elegant exuberance and élan.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109

The grandeur of Beethoven’s musical imagination is tellingly displayed in his antepenultimate piano sonata, a three-movement work that first dreams, then rages, and finally drifts beyond all mortal care to end at peace with the world. Its first movement is a gentle star-gazing fantasy, its second a sharply focused agitato of nightmarish intensity. To conclude, Beethoven reconciles these emotions – the lyrically expansive and the rhythmically driven – in a theme- and-variations finale that gives each its place in the sun.

The first movement is remarkable for its compactness. It opens with a pleasing sequence of harmonies divided between the hands that seems to oat in the air like the uttering of a bird’s wings until a harmonic surprise leads to an affectionate duet between soprano & tenor voices. This second subject is itself interrupted by a rapturous series of arpeggios and scale figures soaring up and down the keyboard.

These three contrasting elements – uttering broken-chord harmonies, lyric duet, and keyboard-sprawling figuration – form the entire content of the movement. But it is the first of these, the uttering broken-chord harmonies, with which Beethoven is obviously in love. It pulses through the entire development and concludes the movement in a coda that seems to drift to its conclusion, ebbing away rather than emphatically ending.

All the more shocking, then, is the contrast between this improvisatory first movement in E major and the arrival of its evil twin, the turbulent second movement in E minor, that follows without a pause. Here, signs of struggle are evident in the competing aims of a call-to-arms figure urgently rising up in the right hand and a stern passacaglia-like bass line grimly descending in the left.

This is no scherzo: there is no peaceful, contrasting ‘trio’ middle section. Rather, it is an unorthodox sonata-form movement driven to continuous contrapuntal development. Despite the breakneck pace, pervasive chromaticism manages to give a sharp edge of pathos to the movement’s violent outbursts and mysterious murmurings.

And then the clouds part, a warm spirit of peace and reconciliation shines down from the heavens, and the sonata ends with a theme-and-variations movement imbued with more than a hint of religious ecstasy.

And how could it not, given the shadow of J. S. Bach that has hovered over the sonata from its opening bars? The broken chord figures of the first movement look back to the ‘pattern’ preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier while the same movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of keyboard-spanning arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference to Baroque practice is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in this finale, we encounter a slow elegiac melody of almost religious solemnity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

The first variation is an Italian opera aria for keyboard, while the second features a hiccupping division of material between the hands. Baroque instincts move into the foreground in the contrapuntal explorations of Variations 3 to 5. In his final variation, Beethoven transforms his theme from
a plain chordal harmonization into a whirling sea of swirling figuration and twinkling stars in the high register before settling down to earth to take leave of his theme once again, presented once again in all its original simplicity – just the way Bach ended his Goldberg Variations.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D Major Op. 102 No. 2

The second of the two sonatas that Beethoven published as his Op. 102 is a particularly thorny creation: elemental, sinewy, and unyielding in its pursuit of musical ideas at the expense of musical sentiments. This is not the place to look for pleasant tunes to hum in the shower.

It comprises three sharply chiseled movements: a sternly brisk first movement with a drill-sergeant edge to it, an emotional black hole of a slow movement, and a full-on gritty fugue finale to let the duffers know just who they are dealing with. It’s quite a ride, this piece, and coming at the very start of Beethoven’s so-called “late period”, it gives a taste of the denseness and concentration of musical thought to come in future works.

The sonata opens with an arresting fanfare, ideal for deep-sleepers to program into their alarm clocks. These four quick notes and a big leap set the tone of brusqueness and forthright direct statement that characterizes the exposition throughout. The military bearing of its musical manner is reinforced by the frequent use of “snap-to-attention” dotted rhythms, bare-bones unison accompaniments, and the odd feeling that there is a bugle somewhere playing along with its many motives based on the major triad. Even the patriotic second theme sounds like a slow-motion fanfare. Only in the development section in the middle of the movement, and in the suspenseful coda at the end, does one move inside from the military parade square and begin to feel the sweep of long phrases governed by an overarching harmonic plan, in place of the exposition’s barked-out orders and responses.

The second movement is oppressively Baroque in mood, its dark emotional tenor reinforced by a dirge-like pace and almost Brahmsian fascination with the low register of the piano. The movement’s opening melody of even 8th notes – with a pause at the end of each phrase – suggests a chorale tune, but the comparison is undercut by the oddly ‘limping’ dotted-rhythm that serves to accompany it. There is something ‘not quite right’ about this deep lyricism, with its eerie unisons and melodic turns that are more worrying than graceful. More expansive lyrical sentiments inhabit the middle section in the major mode, but all in vain, as the Grim Reaper returns to restore the grave tone of the opening, its rhythmic ‘limp’ having now become a twitching ‘tic’.

In keeping with Beethoven’s emerging tendency in his late period to isolate his musical material before developing it, he begins his transition to the finale by spelling out the rising scale figure that will become his fugue subject, first in the solo cello, then echoed back in the piano – like a magician who first shows you both sides of a silk handkerchief from which he is going to miraculously pull a flapping pigeon or a bouquet of flowers. This fugue subject, when it arrives, is metrically a bit ‘o ’ in the way that it weakens the first beat of the bar to the advantage of the second. This makes trying to follow the dazzling patchwork of fugal entries a daunting exercise in mental concentration, for which a tapping foot is only a distraction. The buzzing series of trills in the texture near the end point to their successors in the ‘sound-symphony’ finales of the last piano sonatas.

Claude Debussy
Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor

Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.

The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme; tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.

The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.

In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by – or superimposed with – long strands of lyrical melody.

Johannes Brahms
Sonata for Cello & Piano in E minor Op. 38

Brahms’s first published duo sonata, written between 1862 and 1865, is sombre in tone and antiquarian in inspiration. It is a weighty work – so weighty, in fact, that it stands complete without the emotional ballast of a slow movement at its centre. It features a sonata-form first movement generously proportioned in its three themes, a remarkably dancelike minuet and trio, and a fugal finale.

The shadow of Johann Sebastian Bach hangs long and dark over this sonata. Its opening theme seems to owe much in its outline to an inversion of the opening subject of Bach’s Art of the Fugue while the fugue subject of the finale is a dead ringer for the opening of the Contrapunctus 13 from the same work.

The sonata opens serenely with the cello rising up from its deepest register underneath a plush covering of o -beat chords much akin to those accompanying the opening theme of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, also in E minor. A section of rippling triplets leads to a second theme in the minor mode that is evocative of struggle, with its close imitation between the instruments and its singularly Brahmsian metrical pattern of 3/4 groupings in 4/4 time.

A final theme emerges with the consoling character of a lullaby – and who better to write lullabies than Brahms? These themes are treated in sequence in the development section and reviewed in the recapitulation to complete a template-perfect sonata-form structure.

The second movement minuet is distinctly archaic in flavour, not only in its modal scale patterns and Phrygian cadences, but also in its dainty, genuinely danceable ‘minuettish-ness’. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrasts with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio, that comes replete with its own rhythmic irregularities and slightly gypsyish alternations between major and minor.

Is the last movement a real fugue? It would appear to begin like one, channelling Bach with its dramatic octave-plunge fugue subject. But doubt begins to creep in when a lyrical and owing second theme appears in the relative major. The relaxed graciousness of this theme, an evident contrast to the stern character of the opening fugue subject, puts us squarely in sonata- form territory. And sure enough, both themes are masterfully juxtaposed in the ensuing development section. The manner in which Brahms seems to amalgamate these two very different themes – the Baroque-fugal and the Romantic-lyrical – into one continuous thread of music narrative, switching from one to the other at close range, is the measure of his historical and musical imagination.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: GEORGE LI

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ZHANG ZUO

Ludwig van Beethoven
32 Variations in C minor WoO 80

The theme that Beethoven chose for his 32 Variations in C minor (1806) has a Baroque feel to it, with its chaconne-like harmonic pattern in the left hand and sarabande-like second-beat emphasis in the right. This theme, however, is far from the characterless blank canvas that Baroque composers were wont to lay down as the foundation for their compositional e orts. Within its 8 bars lurks a mini-drama of a distinctly Beethovenian stamp, a drama of struggle, crisis, and resolution that is reproduced in each of the 32 variations that follow.

The left-hand harmonic pattern is built upon a bass line that descends by semitones, one chord to the bar, severe and implacable, like the decrees of Fate. Opposed to this is a courageously heroic right hand that reacts to these alarming developments and by dint of amboyant run-ups struggles to escape in the opposite direction, falling back each time, but inching up a semitone higher with every attempt. Finally, a crisis is reached when both hands land together, sforzando, on a massive F-minor chord (4 notes in each hand), the climactic effect of this is magnified by a stunned silence in the empty first beat of the next bar. Interrupting this silence, both hands then join together

in unison to effect a whimpering cadence, their tails between their legs, chastened for their e orts.

The first 31 variations each t tightly within the 8-bar pattern of the original theme, structuring their transformations on the general harmonic pattern, the melodic outline, the rhythmic o set of the right-hand entry in the original. Successive variations are often grouped together by the use of similar elements in each: arpeggios in Var. 1 to 3, swirling accompaniment figures in Var. 10 & 11, a switch to C major in Variations 12 to 16, low dynamic range in Var. 23 to 25, pervasive double thirds in Var. 26 & 27.

Variation 31 marks a literal return to the falling intervals and run-up scales
of the original theme’s right-hand statements, against a swirl of left-
hand figuration that the final variation takes up in both hands to usher in Beethoven’s final emphatic thoughts on this theme in an extended peroration that even includes the original theme’s humble ending.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Beethoven cast a long shadow over Schubert. Of the three last sonatas that Schubert wrote in September 1828, just a few months before his death, it is the Sonata in C minor which most reveals his ‘Beethovenian’ side. Among
the Beethovenian traits of this sonata are its choice of key, synonymous
with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, and the many hints that Schubert drops throughout the work to indicate just how familiar he was with Beethoven’s instrumental style.

The opening of the rst movement Allegro is the most evident of these, modeled clearly after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor in its meter, rhythm, harmonic pattern, and thematic outline. Schubert manages to evade the tragic implications of his punchy C minor theme, however, by nonchalantly slipping into the major mode in the transition to his angelic 2nd theme in E at, with its bell-like upper-voice pedal notes ringing sweetly in the ear. But serious drama does inhabit the development section, especially its latter half built upon a mysterious neighbour-note motion in the bass gnawing away at the nerves while chromatic scales heedlessly trickle down from above until the aggressive one-two punches of the opening theme gradually surface to announce the recapitulation.

The Adagio second movement owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 in its solemn pace
(a rarity in Schubert slow movements), the halting expressive demeanour
of its opening, and its style of melodic decoration. The influence of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 can also be felt in
a number of its accompaniment patterns. The movement is structured in 5 alternating sections of lyrical repose and emotional turmoil, the latter sections marked by the prominent use of octaves, either anxiously pulsing in triplets or strutting about in a fractious display of contrapuntal discord.

The restless Menuetto & trio that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. It appears strangely conflicted, in fact, as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. Sustained lyrical merriment seems impossible as each successive idea seems undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in its highly irregular phrase lengths and occasional deviations into the minor mode, while its mysterious pauses imply a flow of emotion cut o in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale, a stylistic sibling to the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3. Here the spirit of the dance
is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling – but strangely ominous – rondo with the developmental features of a sonata-form movement. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback (of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig) and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short motives are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Enrique Granados
Goyescas No. 1 ‘Los Requiebros’

The immensely gifted Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados expressed his admiration for the starkly emotional canvasses and etchings
of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) in a suite of evocative piano pieces that he called Goyescas (1911). The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates an intention to depict the amorous adventures of the lower classes of Spanish society, the courting rituals and social interactions of the swains (majos) and the maids (majas) inhabiting the working class neighbourhoods of Madrid in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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

Franz Liszt
Vallée d’Obermann from Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse
)

Étienne Pivert de Sénancour’s novel Oberman (with one ‘n’) was not well received at its publication in 1804. So forcefully, however, did it resonate with the emerging æsthetic preoccupations of the age that three decades later it was a ‘must-read’ in Parisian literary circles, its eponymous central character virtually a watchword for the Romantic sensibility in art. Set in a picturesque valley in Switzerland, it tells the story of a young man enthralled, but at the same time overwhelmed and confused, by his encounters with Nature and the feelings of longing that they engender in him. Helpless to relieve this eternal yearning, he settles on a life of utter simplicity in an attempt to escape the inner struggle and torment of his emotional life.

Liszt’s own travels through Switzerland in the late 1830s inspired his Vallée d’Obermann (with two n’s), first published in 1842 and later included,
in a revised version, in the first of his piano suites entitled Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse) published in 1855. Overtly literary in conception, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann pays tribute to its famous forbear in a type of musical construction that sees its principal theme, a descending scale figure, suffer harmonic and chromatic transformations that parallel the emotional turmoil experienced by Sénancour’s sensitive young hero. This descending scale figure, announced in the left hand as the work opens, permeates every page of the score.

In the first of the work’s three parts it evokes in its chromatic wanderings the listlessness and ennui that the hero’s emotional exhaustion has produced in him. A more developmental middle section begins in an angelic vein to recall how naively and simply his travails began. Here the chromatic inflections of the theme are interpreted a affectionately, in a spirit of songful contentment, but trouble appears on the horizon as the mood is interrupted by a tumultuous passage in tremolo recitative, with octaves flying hither and yon like the mad fury of a caged animal.

The most miraculous transformation of all comes in the final section, when Liszt’s descending scale motive emerges harmonized as a melody of comforting warmth and welcome consolation that builds, strengthened by the courage of its convictions, to an exalting climax.

Throughout the work, however, dense, gritty dissonances, weakly resolved, bear witness to the intensity of the emotional struggle being portrayed and the work ends, almost bitterly, on one of these.

Franz Liszt
Rhapsodie Espagnole S 254

Inspired by a trip to Spain in the winter of 1844-1845, Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole embodies his unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures and demonstrates the kinds of musical gestures that made his stage presence so compelling to audiences.

The work opens in high drama, with deep rumblings in the bass issuing into sweeping arpeggios up to the high register where the angelic strumming of celestial harps prepares us for a musical feast of divine inspiration. Liszt begins with the traditional Folies d’Espagne tune, which Rachmaninoff also used in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, like an old man mumbling to himself on a country road, the tune gradually gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its elaboration extends over the entire range of the keyboard.

But then, at the peak of all this exuberance, Liszt interrupts the proceedings with a ‘music-box’ effect in the high register, chiming out a playful and childlike jota aragonesa, the popular character of which is reinforced by drone tones in the mid-range. Succeeding variations continue to dazzle and astonish until a tender recitative provides a sentimental pause for lyrical reflection.

His nostrils now flaring widely, Liszt cracks his knuckles to unleash a muscular apotheosis of his two main themes in a concentrated display of bravura that may have you reaching for your opera glasses to verify just how many arms the pianist is using, and how many fingers are attached to each.

Protective headgear is recommended, as chips of ceiling stucco may begin to fall before this piece’s final chords thunder through the hall.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

 

PROGRAM NOTES: YEKWON SUNWOO

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D 958

Schubert’s unabashed admiration for Beethoven is vividly on display in the opening bars of his Sonata in C minor D 958, composed in September 1828, shortly before his death. Schubert had served as a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before, and his own death from tertiary syphilis was to be only months away, which may perhaps account for the unusually serious tone of this work.

The key chosen for the sonata, C minor, is synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, as expressed in the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, the last piano sonata Op. 111– as well as the famous 32 Variations in C minor, after which Schubert’s de ant opening statement is rhythmically and harmonically patterned.

Schubert has not lost himself entirely, however, in Beethoven’s musical personality, as his choice of second theme shows. This theme is pure Schubert, a lovingly affectionate little hymn with chiming, bell-like pedal tones that Schubert somehow then manages to transform into a dance. Drama returns, however, in the development section, that chews away at the first theme’s motives before settling into a long rumination on a neighbour-note figure alternating between bass and treble. The re-transition to the sonata’s opening statement to begin the recapitulation is masterfully handled by means of menacing hints in the bass line of the aggressive punchy chords that began the movement.

Schubert’s second movement is something of an eyebrow-raiser: it is a real adagio, a comparative rarity in the works of a composer whose lyrical instincts tended to emerge at a more moderato pace. In its concentrated lyrical tone, piecemeal phrasing, and style of ornamentation, it owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor. Not to mention the accompanimental patterns that it borrows from the slow movement of another sonata in C minor, the Pathétique.

There is an anxious, worrying quality about the Minuetto & trio that it is hard to put your finger on. Minuets in a minor key are a bit odd to start with, although Mozart produced a sublime example in his Symphony No. 40 in G minor K 550. The sense of unease in Schubert’s minuet may simply be a matter of how this movement seems alienated from the spirit of the dance. Its irregular phrase lengths, the sudden disturbing changes in dynamics and unexpected silences are more ghostly than toe-tapping.

And ghostly is a good description of the last movement Allegro, in which Schubert unleashes his inner playful demon with wicked glee. This moto perpetuo movement, with its dancelike tarantella rhythm (likely patterned after the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3), is both thrilling and strangely ominous, reminiscent of the night ride in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig. The keyboard writing is brilliantly effective, however, especially in the galloping second theme, with its cross-handed texture of melodic fragments jockeying between high and low register, leaping across a steady horse-hoof pulse in the middle of the keyboard.

Percy Grainger
Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier

The Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger is best known for his arrangement of the English folksong, In an English Country Garden. He also wrote piano paraphrases, many of which he labelled “rambles,” presumably to indicate the meandering pleasure he took in wandering through the musical meadows of other composers’ works. His most elaborately wrought of these is based on the love duet between Sophie and Octavian (Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein) in the final scene of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911).

Grainger was an admirer of Richard Strauss, the great virtue of whose music lay in its sumptuous “vulgarity” (Grainger’s word), vastly preferable, in his view, to the demeanour of modesty and emotional restraint of, for example, Ravel. Armed with these premises, the modern listener should be prepared, when listening to Grainger’s Rosenkavalier Ramble, for an encounter with the aesthetic tastes of a bygone era, an era of ear-tickling “frilly” pianism offered up in a tenor of open-hearted emotionalism encapsulated in the term “schmaltz”.

Grainger composed this paraphrase in what he calls his “harped” style, one in which waves of harmonic colour are heard to ripple across the entire sound register of the instrument in poetic arpeggio formations, and even the notes of chords written on the same stem are not always served up in solid blocks but rather “sprinkled” out in digital sequence. It is a style that luxuriates in the amount of keyboard real estate it can occupy in a single phrase, with each tuneful scrap of melody intoned in the mid-range paired with a sonic echo somewhere in the outer regions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the distance between the concert hall and the piano lounge narrows considerably during the performance of this work.

Audience members with a bird-watcher’s interest in rare sightings will want to train their opera glasses on the pianist’s shoelaces before the piece begins to catch a glimpse of the middle “sostenuto” pedal being deployed as selected bass notes are silently depressed above on the keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sonata No. 2 in B at minor Op. 36

Rachmaninoff ’s second piano sonata is in three movements bound together by the cyclical recurrence of common musical motives. It sounds like one continuous work in three parts, however, as the first movement closes softly and is followed by a bridge section at the opening of the second movement that recurs at the end to connect it to the finale. This sonata is a massive work in which Rachmaninoff projects his trademark sense of pianistic power and musical muscle as convincingly as he does in his piano concertos, with which the sonata shares some large-scale formal design features: a fast middle section in the ‘slow’ movement and a glorious apotheosis of lyrical melody at the end of the last movement – prominent features of his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos.

The work opens with one of the great dramatic gestures in the piano repertoire, an arpeggio plunging to the bottom of the keyboard followed by a cannon-echo above that outlines the first theme: a falling 3rd, and chromatically descending melody, developed over a series of cadenza-like passages before a calmer, more hymn-like second theme appears in the major mode, also based on the chromatic melody. The development section delves deep into the chromatic contours of both themes to climax in a gigantic wall of sound descending in massive fist-chords of piano sonority, leading directly to the triumphant return of the opening material. Despite grandiose flirtations with the major mode in this recapitulation, the movement dissolves in the end into a simmering, almost malevolent cat-purr of minor-mode figuration in the high register, like a fever that has ebbed, but not quite run its course.

The second movement opens with a series of questioning phrases, as if bewildered and almost dejected. Solace does come, though, in a luminous texture of gentle pulses crowned by bright and ringing bell-strokes on a high pedal note in the treble. The lyrical climax of the movement comes shortly thereafter in a heart-breaking series of harmonic sequences that tug at the emotions as only Rachmaninoff can. The mood then turns darkly ruminative, as fragments of the first movement are worried and fretted over until the opening material is recalled and the questioning phrases return.

The finale interrupts this mood of contemplation with a cascade of sound and a series of stabbing gestures that issues into the first theme, a wild ride surging onward in a solid wall of sound, reinforced by the frequent tolling of the lowest B at on the keyboard, plumbed over and over again. Rachmaninoff ’s lyrical instincts then take over to offer us a warmly generous and expansive second theme that later becomes the exalted subject of the movement’s apotheosis. The movement ends, like the concertos, with a scramble to the finish in reworks reminiscent of the ending of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto.

Maurice Ravel
La Valse

Ravel had been planning to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz since 1906, when he began to sketch out a piece he called simply Wien (Vienna),a tribute to the “waltz king,” Johann Strauss II. But it was only under a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the famous Ballets Russes, that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev hated the work after hearing it played in Ravel’s two-piano version, but the composer published it in an orchestral version anyway and it premiered in 1926. Meanwhile, the original solo piano version produced when the work was composed endured as a daunting enigma for intrepid pianists to master and perform.

The problems to be confronted are many. With three authentic versions issuing from the pen of the composer, what is a pianist to do? The solo piano score is an ultra-compressed version of both the two-piano and orchestral versions. A signi cant portion of it is written with a third staff above the regular piano part to indicate prominent lines in the other versions, so every performance is by definition a kind of transcription: the pianist must decide just how much to include. Leave out the slyly creeping chromatic ligree in the inner lines and much of the piece’s Viennese charm is lost. Omit the extravagant glissandi at climactic high points and the piece loses a major source of its propulsive exuberance.

Yet another problem is that the score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass in preparation for bits of waltz rhythm to emerge haphazardly above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between an uninhibited, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.

Ravel describes what he called his poème chorégraphique as follows: “Swirling clouds a ord glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.”

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: THE VERONA QUARTET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Ravel
Quartet in F major

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

A change to our first concert in the 2017-18 Season

The Simón Bolívar String Quartet’s scheduled performance at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 17 has been postponed to a future season. The current volatile and violent situation in Venezuela, which has heightened following last week’s election, has made it almost impossible for the quartet to navigate around Caracas to make arrangements for their North American tour. Both the USA and Canada have withdrawn most of their diplomatic staff from the city, and there are now very few airlines flying in and out of Venezuela. Given that the situation is expected to escalate before it is resolved, the sad decision was made to postpone the tour, which, in addition to the scheduled VRS engagement, had included planned performances at the Ravinia Festival and Cornell Concert Series.
 
Alejandro Carreño, 1st violinist with the quartet, said, “This is a regrettable moment for us as Venezuelans, and a dark process of our history. Artistically this tour was very important for the quartet, and that is why we want to let the presenters and public know how sorry we are about this situation, which is out of our control. We hope to reschedule these concert dates where possible, so that we can return soon to these important places. We are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received from our team and colleagues; their commitment and support is invaluable to us as artists. We very much hope to be able to perform internationally as a quartet again in the near future.”

We are obviously very disappointed that we won’t be able to hear the Simón Bolívar String Quartet this season, however our primary concern is for the safety and wellbeing of the members of the quartet and indeed the people of Venezuela in these difficult times. We’ll be keeping in touch with quartet, and we very much hope to present them in a future season. So stayed tuned for more on that…

In the meantime, I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with my contacts in Europe and North America trying to find an equally brilliant quartet to present on this date. And the good news is, I’ve found one! The Verona Quartet — hailed by The New York Times as an “outstanding ensemble of young musicians” — will be stepping in to replace the Simón Bolívar Quartet. The venue, date and time of the performance are unchanged.

The Verona Quartet has a wonderful program:

Haydn: String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 50, No. 1
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Ravel: String Quartet in F major.

In my 38 years as a concert presenter, I’ve dealt with cancellations before. But never due to political and civil unrest.

Our thoughts are very much with the Simón Bolívar Quartet.

Warmly,

 



Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., DFA
Founder & Artistic Director

 

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