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Program Notes: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K. 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the Mannheim rocket while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 1 in F minor  Op. 2 No. 1

The first of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas was an audacious debut for the young composer in 1795. Markedly Mozartean in its external forms, and unmistakably Haydnesque in its procedures of motivic development, it is even more boldly Beethovenian in the way it uses both form and procedure to express a new spirit of individualism that will dominate serious musical culture in the coming Romantic era.

The high seriousness of Beethoven’s approach to the sonata is apparent everywhere. At a time when piano sonatas were normally written in three movements, Beethoven writes four, adding an extra minuet movement normally reserved for the more serious forms of symphony and string quartet. And at a time when sonatas were mostly aimed at amateur musicians looking for cheerful entertainment, Beethoven thumbs his nose at the popular market by writing a moody, angst-ridden sonata, above-average in difficulty, in an eccentric hard-to-read minor key with four flats. Topping it all off, there is an aggressive, slightly anti-social edge to the outer movements, both set in “punchy” cut time, with two beats to the bar.

The core motivic material on which the Molto allegro first movement is based is given in the first 8 bars. And in typical Beethoven style this first “theme” is not really a melody but rather a series of related small phrases accelerating in intensity to a mini-climax, followed by a pause for theatrical effect. Two important motives are hammered into the ear by dint of frequent repetition, both popularized by the music of the Mannheim Orchestra earlier in the century, and much used by Mozart, among other composers.

First there is an ascending arpeggio figure, or Mannheim rocket (featured in Mozart’s C minor Sonata K. 457, and in his Symphonies No. 25 and 40, both in G minor) which is then crowned by a short twiddle in triplet 16ths, an example of the famous Mannheim bird-call. These two motives will dominate the entire movement, with the rocket figure, in inverted form, even structuring the movement’s 2nd theme. This use of the same musical material in both first and second themes must have brought a smile to the face of Beethoven’s teacher, the monothematically-inclined Haydn, to whom the three sonatas of Op. 2 were dedicated, and who was sitting in the room when Beethoven first performed these works in public in 1796.

The development section does little to calm things down after this dramatic exposition and drums up as much excitement through its constantly thrumming tremolo accompaniments as from its obsession with the minor-mode colouring of the movement’s second theme. After an economically short recapitulation the movement ends with a machine gun rat-a-tat of angry chords, a kind of “So there!” gesture so rudely abrupt, it’s as if Beethoven had thrown down his cards in anger, pounded his fists on the card table and stomped out of the room.

Ludwig is on his best behaviour, however, in the very Mozartean Adagio with its simple serene melodies lavishly ornamented with opera-style decorative embellishments. Structured in a truncated sonata form (without a development section) this movement offers the listener the only overtly “pretty” music in the whole sonata and its dramatic action centres around the many decorative ways in which its melodic material can be tastefully dressed up.

Moody moves and shady goings-on return in the following Allegretto that features a minuet tune in the minor mode pieced together, like the opening of the first movement, from repeated melodic fragments of a slightly anxious character. The convulsive momentum generated by these short repeated ‘hiccup’ motives is disturbing in a dance movement, an effect that the smooth two-part counterpoint of the major-mode Trio section does its best to counteract.

The last movement of a classical sonata was expected to be the lightest, a kind of musical “dessert” after all the emotional heavy lifting of previous movements was over and done with. Not so with Beethoven, whose tendency to create end-weighted multi-movement works would only increase as his career advanced.

Beethoven’s finale in this sonata is what András Schiff calls a “riding movement, similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig.” It opens with a heavy, fierce and almost pitch-less knock-on-the-door motive in the right hand over a roiling accompaniment of furiously bubbling arpeggiated chords in the left hand. This is full-contact piano music, played with the arms as much as the fingers. It requires a radically different approach to the keyboard, one far removed from the sedate posture and finger-focused performing style used in playing Mozart.

The mood is not all Sturm und Drang, however. Perhaps to compensate for all the dyspeptic turmoil of the exposition, Beethoven provides emotional contrast – and breaks with tradition – by introducing a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section, a pleasantly poised theme of a relaxed character, the sort of thing you could easily find yourself humming in the shower. But you just know it can’t last and the impetuous knock-knock motive gradually insinuates itself back into the proceedings and takes over, driving with unstoppable momentum to the recapitulation, which ends even more abruptly than the first movement.

This is a sonata that must have left its first listeners breathless, some in admiration, others in exasperation. The so-called classical style, developed in Vienna between the years 1770 and 1800, may well have had Mozart as its architect, and Haydn to install the furniture, but as this sonata shows, Beethoven was its poltergeist, moving objects around the room without permission.

 

Sofia Gubaidulina
Chaconne

Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced “goo-buy-DOO-lee-nah”) is a composer of deep spiritual commitments who believes that religion and music are simply two different dialects of the same fundamental human language. At the heart of her compositional practice is her admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose grounding in religious faith she shares and whose musical procedures she often incorporates into her own compositions.

Her music is intensely contrapuntal and highly chromatic, with diatonic harmonies appearing like oases of spiritual comfort in a tonal world riven with conflict. Dissonance is ever-present, but sonorities are so widely spaced out on the keyboard that rhythmic patterning and the interplay of melodic lines more easily capture the ear’s attention than the clash of pitches.

Her Chaconne of 1962 is structured as a series of variations on an 8-bar theme presented in the crashing chords of the work’s dramatic opening. From a distance of five octaves apart, these bold handfuls move slowly and majestically toward the centre of the keyboard, spilling as they go the motivic material on which the following variations will be based.

Framed within a chromatic idiom, typical Baroque procedures abound, including chattering toccata textures, fugal imitation, theme augmentation, inversion and stretto, as well as pedal tones and ostinato figures. Rhythmic acceleration propels the work forward, reaching a climax of intensity that leads to a massively monumental return of the opening theme. Its final point made, the work ends by fading into a soft blurry tonal sunset deep in the bass register of the keyboard.

 

Eleanor Alberga
Cwicseolfor

Eleanor Alberga OBE is a British composer of Jamaican origin, known for her work with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and for commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She writes clearly structured works that often feature repeated rhythmic patterns which lend her textures a powerful rhythmic drive.

Her one-movement Cwicseolfor for piano was commissioned by the Barbican Centre London and the European Concert Hall Organisation in collaboration with B:Music and was written especially for Isata Kanneh-Mason.

The composer tells us the following about her new composition:

Cwicseolfor is the ancient spelling of quicksilver; itself the word for the element mercury. This word in its old English spelling is to be found in reference to the alchemy of those times.

As a child, I remember being fascinated with watching mercury in a container; how it didn’t adhere to anything and moved and changed direction rapidly. There was also an almost unbelievable brilliance on the surface of this stuff. Anyone who has seen this will know exactly what I mean. (Little wonder that in so many cultures and over many centuries mercury has been seen as having transformative qualities.)

Cwicseolfor is about that experience and the piece mimics the qualities of unrealistic shine, non-adherence and rapid changes of pace and direction. For the player it is virtuosic – always changing in mood, tempo and variation of material.

I suppose the alchemy lies in transforming my childhood experience into a piece of music.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Excerpts from Études-Tableaux  Op. 39

Rachmaninoff wrote two sets of Études-Tableaux, a new genre of his own invention that combines programmatic ‘pictorial’ elements with the study of a particular technical problem. The Op. 39 set are much darker in tone than the earlier set of Op. 33, with eight of the nine études being in a minor key. Written in 1917, they are the last works written by Rachmaninoff before he fled Russia with his family to escape the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament.  The challenge that these Études-Tableaux present to the performing pianist is to bring out an overarching melodic line set amid thickly padded harmonic textures and a dazzling haze of ornamental filigree.

No. 1 in C minor surges up and down the keyboard in dark swirls of right-hand triplet 16ths, vaulting from one state of harmonic crisis to the next, accompanied by the ominous urgings of syncopated octaves in the left hand’s bass line.

The ‘tableau’ of No. 2 in A minor, we are told by Rachmaninoff himself, is that of seagulls and the sea.  The lapping of waves is evoked by gently swaying triplets in the left hand while the free soaring of seagulls in the open air is imagined in the open fifths of the duple-rhythm melody hovering above it. A hint of eternal sadness radiates out from the left-hand accompaniment, which time and again echoes the opening notes of the plainchant tune Dies irae (Day of wrath) from the Roman-rite mass for the dead.

No. 4 in B minor is a dancelike toccata of unstoppable forward momentum with many changes of metre and a general air of rhythmic willfulness. This is travelling music and its recurring patterns of peppery repeated notes suggests the bright merry tinkling of sleigh bells on an exhilarating ride over fields of snow.

The sombre and stormy No. 5 in E flat minor is cast in the darkest of tonal colours, heavily weighted to the bottom half of the keyboard. Heroic in scale, it tests the power of the pianist’s right-hand pinky finger to belt out its sombre melody against a rumbling onslaught of tonal resonance from below.

No. 6 in A minor, according to Rachmaninoff, paints a picture of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” and it’s not hard to sort out who is who in the vividly contrasting textures of this piece. It begins with several menacing snarls deep in the bass, each concluding with the jaw-snap of sharp teeth, followed immediately in the upper register by the fretful chatter of a frightened flight from danger. This is an unrelenting chase scene, nightmarish in its intensity.  Did Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf? Listen for the ending to find out.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade in F major  Op. 38

Chopin’s four Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, a name likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular storytelling style. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting first and second themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are massively end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

The Ballade in F major Op. 38 contains some of sweetest and some of the most violent music that Chopin ever composed. It is a work of extreme contrasts, between moods, between key centres, and between major and minor tonalities.

This Ballade is both a daydream and a nightmare. It opens with a daydream, a soft sleepy-time tune of the utmost innocence, almost drowsy-making with its many chiming repetitions of single notes and short phrases, its drone passages with an unchanging bass note, and its constant iambic pulse of short-long rhythms. The tonal colouring is diatonic but not monotone, and a faint hint of A-minor sadness drifts through the reverie’s central section. But it soon gets wished away and the mood returns to that of rustic bliss, made sweetly musical in the ‘pastoral’ key of F major.

That ‘A-minor sadness,’ though was a foreboding of things to come. For just as the eyelids begin to droop lower and lower there comes a terrifying jump-scare when splintering shards of sonic glass come crashing down like an exploding stained-glass window from the high treble, to be met with bold, angry gestures of defiance mounting up from the bass, all of it in a nightmarish…A minor.

In what follows these two themes – the lilting diatonic F major lullaby and the lurching, chromatic-inflected A minor outburst – begin to interact, each taking on features of the other as the outburst theme adopts the lullaby’s iambic rhythms and the lullaby muses to itself in ever more chromatic directions.

In the end, though, the incendiary coda, with its demonic but almost celebratory glinting of chromatic glee, makes clear just who came out on top from these encounters.  The final bars are filled with a wrenching pathos as the lilting pastoral lullaby theme is heard softly lamenting its downcast fate…in A minor.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Castalian String Quartet

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D minor  Op. 76 No. 2  (“Fifths”)

Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet for his leading role in transforming the genre from its origins as light entertainment into a vehicle for serious composition, worthy of standing beside the instrumental sonata and the orchestral symphony.

His earliest quartets were divertimento-like, comprised of five movements (two of which were minuets) and were written in Rococo style with an eye towards simplicity, grace and elegance. These were carefree works with simple textures and uncomplicated formal designs and were aimed at amateur musicians of moderate ability.

Beginning with Haydn’s Op. 9 quartets of 1770, however, a different type of quartet begins to emerge, laid out in just four movements, each distinct in character and mood. And the transformation is complete with the publication of his Op. 20 quartets in 1772. These are technically demanding works based on the relentless pursuit of motivic development, bristling with learned counterpoint and even fugues. They require players alert to the cross-chatter of lively ensemble playing, in textures that represent, as Goethe was famously to remark, an intelligent conversation between four individuals.

The string quartet had become, in the words of Haydn scholars Floyd and Margaret Grave, “an exemplary genre for connoisseurs.”

*                      *                      *

In the six quartets of Op. 76, completed in 1797, we catch Haydn near the end of his career and at the height of his powers, during the period in which he was also composing his oratorio The Creation. The second quartet in the set, in D minor, is remarkable for the extreme contrasts of mood that characterize its four movements, which alternate between high seriousness and playful contentment.

The work opens in eyebrow-knitting earnestness with a falling-fifth motive in the 1st violin that gives the quartet its nickname (“Fifths”), accompanied by a hand-wringing patter of anxious 8th notes in the other instruments. These two motivic elements – half-note fifths set against 8th-note counter-play – will constitute virtually the entire motivic material from which Haydn’s fashions this movement, with the half-note fifth motive playing the leading role throughout. It even chaperones the second theme, meant to contrast with it. It seems to be always in circulation somewhere in the texture, getting passed around between the instruments like a decanter of sherry between gentlemen in dinner jackets smoking cigars. In the development section there is hardly a single bar without this motive in some voice or other, either straight-up, inverted, in stretto, or in diminution.  Needless to say, this quartet was aptly named.

The Andante più tosto allegretto that follows is a kind of variation movement – but then again, everything in Haydn seems to be a “variation” because of his mono-thematic mindset: using the same motives over and over again in different guises throughout a single movement. Here he seems to wink slyly back at the first movement by running its “falling interval” motive into the ground through constant repetition. The melody line features simple falling fifths, filled-in chordal fifths, and fifths filled in with runs. In the end, though, it is the constant tick-tock in the first violin of falling thirds that makes the whole movement sound like a kind of grandfather clock, coyly aided and abetted by a dainty pizzicato accompaniment in the other instruments.

This is Haydn’s dry humour at its most arch.

The Menuetto is even more eccentric still. Sometimes called the Hexenmenuett (Witch’s Minuet), it opens with an austere, bare-bones two-voice canon between upper and lower voices in D minor.  This is followed by a trio that begins on a series of repeated notes on the pitch D, sort of implying D minor from the previous section – but no! A lusty full-throated D major chord suddenly bursts into our ears in the same repeated-note pattern to resolve the ambiguity.

Haydn is known to have burst out laughing at his own musical jokes when listening to his string quartets performed by others. This movement may well have been one of his real knee-slappers.

Haydn ends this quartet with a short snappy finale which, like many of Haydn’s finales, has a rural dance flavour to it, with drone tones aplenty and the first violin playing village fiddler throughout. It opens with a bustling little theme that seems to be urgently chasing its own tail but then after 8 bars comically stops dead in its tracks under a goose-egg fermata as if cross-eyed in confusion. The recurring motive of a pick-up 8th note, characteristic of both the first and second themes, provides continuing onward momentum while repeated notes keep the listener’s toes tapping and some acrobatic wild leaps in the first violin keep the circus atmosphere alive. This is a movement full of personality and while written in D minor, it actually spends most of its time in the major mode, ending in an exuberant flurry of D major figuration.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn
String Quartet in E-flat Major

In her youth Fanny Mendelssohn revealed a musical talent just as precocious as that of her younger brother Felix. Both received the same rigorous musical training: keyboard instruction from pianist Ludwig Berger (1777-1839), a student of Muzio Clementi, and lessons in counterpoint and composition from composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832). In 1824, Zelter noted in a letter to his friend Goethe that Fanny, barely 19 years of age, had already composed no less than 32 fugues.

But while Felix might be free to pursue a musical career, Fanny, as the daughter of a well-to-do family of high social standing, was not.  Her path in life, according to the social conventions of the time, was to be a wife and mother, a role she fulfilled when in 1829 she married, in a love match, the court painter Wilhelm Hensel (1795-1861). With the support of her husband, though, she continued to compose throughout her life, producing over 125 piano pieces and 250 lieder, as well as various chamber works. But nevertheless, many of her early compositions (including one of Queen Victoria’s favourite songs) had to be published under her brother’s name, and the vast majority of her almost 450 completed works remained unpublished during her lifetime.

Frau Fanny Hensel née Mendelssohn did, however, have a private musical career, continuing to take part in the Sunday musicale concerts that had been held weekly in the Mendelssohn family’s elegant Berlin home since 1823 with audiences of up to 200 guests. A list of composers she programmed for these concerts in the period from 1833 until her death from a stroke in 1847 reveals much about her musical ideals and the models she used in her own compositions. Topping the list were 40 works by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, followed by Beethoven (38), Bach (16), and Mozart (13).  Her admiration for these composers is easily discernible in her String Quartet in E flat major written in 1834, which may well count as the first quartet by a female composer in the Western canon.

*                      *                      *

Based on a piano sonata started five years earlier and written largely in the Mendelssohnian style of Romantic-tinged classicism, this four-movement work presents some interesting anomalies. The first of these is the choice of an Adagio for its opening movement, a deviation from classical decorum that raised an eyebrow of disapproval in her brother Felix, but which might have been inspired by the example of a similar slow opening movement in Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C# minor Op. 131.  Similar, as well, to this Beethoven quartet movement is the concentrated emphasis on imitative counterpoint, testifying to what the New Grove Dictionary refers to as the composer’s “Bachian proclivities.” The movement unfolds rhapsodically as a free fantasy that ruminates fervently and at length over its opening phrase, a downward melodic gesture ending with a sigh motive.

The Allegretto that follows is very much in the vein of her brother’s Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo: fleet and acrobatic, but with a scurrying middle-section fugato like the scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The third-movement Romanze is the emotional heart of the quartet, remarkable for its extraordinarily wide expressive range and creepy-crawly chromatic harmonies. It begins tenderly with a gently pulsing carpet of repeated notes that blossoms into a shy, wistful and slightly plaintive melody of small range contrasted immediately after with wide melodic leaps reminiscent of the two-voice single-line melodies found in Bach. These simple thematic elements, however, soon don their Wellington boots to huff and puff through a heavy developmental section of churning 16th-note passages echoing with passionate intensity through tonal space until the demure mood of the opening returns to close the movement as it began.

Now it is at just this point in the proceedings that listeners with perfect pitch might start to wonder just where the “E flat” in this “String Quartet in E flat” was planning on making an appearance, because up to this point the work seems to be spending almost all of its time anywhere but in E flat major. In fact Felix Mendelssohn noted in a letter to his sister that the first two movements are “not in any particular key” whatsoever and was all “Don’t get me started” when discussing the key scheme of the third movement.

We can feel confident, however, that his worst fears were allayed by the rock-solid harmonic foundation on which his sister constructed the concluding movement. This finale is in a regular-as-rain sonata form with an exposition moving from a tonic E flat to its dominant, a massive development section with no awkward surprises, and a small but tidy little recapitulation to tie a neat formal bow around the whole package. The reason for this sudden falling-in-line on the harmonic front is that the expressive effect of the movement has little to do with its harmonic design but is predicated entirely on its unstoppable forward momentum.

It opens with a flurry of whirlwind figuration, derived perhaps from the Presto finale of Felix’s Fantasy in F# Op. 28, or possibly inspired by the finale of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332.  And the 16th-note motion initiated at the outset rarely stops to catch its breath throughout, even acting as a kind of Peloton running strip underneath the more lyrical second theme. The development section features some impassioned Beethovenian counterpoint between starkly contrasting thematic ideas and the whole movement goes by like a blur.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major  D 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, one inevitably wonders whether Schubert’s mimeographic profusion of ideas should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthly tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

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

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim to the ministrations of Morpheus.

This quartet is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is an ambitious quartet that lives in an enlarged sound world of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo, and replete with tutti quadruple stops that add an aggressive edge to its musical rhetoric.

Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand, either to beef up the ‘sound-weight’ of the instruments into an imitation of an orchestral tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect. Equally ear-catching are the many sudden dramatic changes in dynamics (a Beethoven trademark) and the acrobatic pitch range within which the instruments sometimes move at rocket speed.

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

The Andante un poco moto is charged with mystery and suspense. It begins innocently enough with the cello singing out a simple hummable tune in its tenor register. This is a melody that proceeds at a drowsy ‘sleepwalking’ pace, its eerie stillness reinforced by gentle reminders in the accompaniment of its opening melodic leap and by the stabilizing presence of pedal tones in the harmony. But ever and again it plunges into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return, unleashing ‘horror-film’ tremolos that vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding. These two moods – the eerie dream and the nightmare – alternate throughout the movement until the night-wandering melody ends up back under the covers in the warm embrace of a major chord in its final bars.

The Allegro vivace scherzo that follows goes off like an alarm clock with volleys of rapid-fire repeated notes that vibrate with nervous energy in the minor mode, ricocheting through every register of the quartet’s range until relieved by the calming entrance of the central Trio section, a slow gentle Viennese waltz with a rustic drone in the bass.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. It opens with a hearty foot-stomping, knee-slapping tarantella theme with a type of gypsy-style merriment characterized by quicksilver changes between major and minor tone colourings. And its second theme is an utterly outrageous parody of a Rossini patter aria.

Schubert, too long you say? This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Notice of the Vancouver Recital Society’s AGM for the year ended August 31, 2021

NOTICE OF ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF MEMBERS OF

VANCOUVER RECITAL SOCIETY

(the “Society”)

The Board of Directors of the Society hereby gives notice that the Annual

General Meeting of the Society will be held Online, via ZOOM (details below), on the 22nd day of February, 2022, at the hour of 5:30pm, for the following purposes:

  1. To receive the report of the directors to the members.
  2. To receive the financial statements of the Society for the period ended August 31, 2021, and the auditor’s report thereon.
  3. To appoint an auditor for the Society for the ensuing year.
  4. To elect directors of the Society to hold office until the conclusion of the next annual general meeting of the Society.
  5. To transact such other business as may properly come before the meeting.

DATED: January 17, 2022.

BY ORDER OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Per:

Susan Wong Lim, Secretary

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Following the business of the meeting, the VRS’s Founder & Artistic Director, Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., D.F.A., will share some of the exciting details of the upcoming 2022-2023 season (along with the trials, tribulations and ongoing challenges around planning amidst a pandemic).

Meeting materials can all be found online using the links below:

Should you have trouble with any of the links or have any questions related to the AGM, please feel free to contact Sara Getz by email (sara [at] vanrecital [dot] com).

 

Program Notes: Miloš and Avi Avital

Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 2 in A minor: Prelude | Well-Tempered Clavier 1: Fugue in C minor | Concerto in D minor (after Marcello): Adagio | Partita No. 2 in C minor: Capriccio

In Bach’s time, the instrument closest to the sound world of the guitar and mandolin was the lute. Bach wrote suites for the lute, transcribed his own works for the lute, and much of the music he wrote for the harpsichord (another plucked-string instrument), imitated the arpeggiated texture of French lute music. So, transcribing Bach’s keyboard music for these two chordophone cousins of the lute works particularly well, especially since their difference in timbre offers the opportunity to imitate the contrasts of tone colour available on a two-manual harpsichord.

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The Prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor  BWV 807 is an exhilarating two-voice moto perpetuo movement with the motoric rhythms of a Baroque concerto grosso. Its main textural feature is the rhythmic contrast between a ‘chatter-box’ stream of 16th notes and a plodding accompaniment in lumbering 8ths. Harmonies change like clockwork at the beginning of every bar, sometimes as part of harmonic sequences using the circle of fifths, at other times creating harmonic tension through the use of a pedal tone in the bass.

Rhythmic pulse plays a major role, as well, in the appeal of the Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. This pulse is driven by a playful, mordent-like ‘tick-tock’ figure sounded three times in its opening subject. And as in the Prelude, this rhythmic ‘hook’ in the fugue subject, with its many leaps, is dogged by a countersubject of scalar running figures in lumbering 8ths. But in this fugue the harmonic rhythm is much faster, sometimes changing with every 8th note.

Soothing relief from all this rhythmic counter-play comes in Bach’s keyboard transcription of the Adagio from the Oboe Concerto in D minor attributed to the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (1669-1750), in turn now transcribed for guitar and mandolin. This work remains at the centre of the Baroque repertoire for the oboe, a virtual operatic aria for the instrument, with its unusual texture of a piercing and reedy but lyrical soprano voice set in high relief against a sympathetic string accompaniment. This work may well have inspired Ennio Morricone to create the same texture in his film score for the film The Mission.

The gentle pulse of its opening bars immediately engages the ear, as the dissonant close interval of a major 2nd resolves rewardingly into a dominant seventh, and then finally on to the tonic harmony from which the melody of the solo instrument takes upward flight. Lingering dissonances such as these, and the tension created by their delayed resolution, contribute in no small measure to the pathos emanating from the solo melodic line in this movement.

The Capriccio in Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor supplants the partita’s traditional gigue finale but nevertheless displays many gigue-like features. Prominent amongst these is its fondness for wide leaps in the melodic line – leaps of a 10th, in fact – that by dint of constant repetition in various registers come across as buoyantly whimsical and good-natured. Also very gigue-like is its structural layout in binary form, with the second half beginning with a melodic inversion of the first half’s leaping motive. Most ingenious of all in this movement, though, is the fact that it’s actually a fugue!

 

Philip Glass
Opening No. 1 from Glassworks | The Poet Acts  from The Hours Etude No. 9

Philip Glass is a giant amongst American composers. He is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of the minimalist movement in Western music, along with composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, although he prefers to think of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”

The general idea of these composers is to limit themselves to the most elementary musical elements and by dint of repetition to create a kind of aural tapestry that undergoes kaleidoscopic changes of tone colour while pulsing, vibrating or shimmering in tonal space.

This is music that is simple, tuneful and direct, meant to be immediately appealing without irony or even emotional complexity. While the harmonies are diatonic, i.e., based on the notes of the major or minor scale, there is little feeling of harmonic tension and release, few leading tones to guide the ear in pre-ordained patterns of expectation, so every change in harmony becomes equally surprising, equally emotionally resonant.

Opening No. 1, originally scored for solo piano, is the first movement of Glassworks (1982), a six-movement suite for piano and chamber wind orchestra.  It is conceived as a series of four-voice harmonies, one chord to a bar, in repeated four-bar and eight-bar phrases, the three upper voices of the harmony constantly rocking in intervals of 3rds, 4ths and 5ths, in a 2-against-3 rhythm.

The Poet Acts is an emotionally resonant excerpt from Philip Glass’ score to the film The Hours (2002), which deals with the suicide by drowning of the British writer Virginia Woolf. This film score won a BAFTA for Best Film Music and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a Grammy, and an Academy Award. Here, too, there are constantly wavering harmony lines in the textural in-fill, but shining through them from time to time is also a mysterious melody fragment repeated in the tonal range of the cello.

Etude No. 9, from the collection of 20 piano etudes that Glass wrote between 1991 and 2012, is similar in texture to other works on the program in that its texture features ostinato patterns in pulsing 8th notes.  But often superimposed over them are parallel streams of simple triadic harmonies in the treble. And as in many of Glass’ works, triple metre ripples in constant contrast to duple metre in the texture.

 

Isaac Albéniz
Asturias for solo guitar

The best-known piece of Spanish guitar music, Albéniz’s Asturias, began as a work written for the piano. First published as a Prelude to Albéniz’s three-movement Chants d’Espagne in 1892, it was posthumously re-published as part of the composer’s Suite española just before the First World War with the title Asturias and the subtitle Leyenda (legend), under which names it is known today.

The publisher was quite mistaken, because this work has nothing to do with the northern coastal region of Asturias and everything to do with the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Andalusia is the cultural homeland of the flamenco tradition, an art that developed under gypsy influence to embrace a passionate amalgam of guitar-playing, singing, wailing, dancing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping, the sonic echoes of which Albéniz transferred with consummate skill to the keyboard.

Many transcriptions of this piano work exist for the guitar, but the most popular is undoubtedly that of Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), who transposed it from its original G minor to the more guitar-friendly key of E minor, allowing the fingers of the right hand to play on an open string the work’s most ear-catching riff: a chiming pedal note in the treble that constantly sounds while the guitarist’s thumb picks out melody notes down below.

This opening section is structured as a long crescendo, eventually punctuated by brusque exclamatory full chords played rasgueado (strummed with the fingernails), in imitation of the sharp heel-stomp of a flamenco dancer.

The piece is in three parts. Its more soulful and pensive middle section features a free-floating melody with minimal accompaniment that eventually returns to the ‘busy-bee’ hum of the work’s opening section.

 

Manuel de Falla 
Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

De Falla’s most popular vocal work was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. Its transcription for that instrument is thus a natural outgrowth of the composer’s original source of inspiration.

The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.

The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), despite its dance-like rhythms – or perhaps because of them – delivers a mocking warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair. The Seguidilla murciana that follows is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter, conveyed in a shoulder-poking rapid-fire patter of repeated notes in the melody line.

The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the accompaniment evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.

The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.

The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.

 

Mathias Duplessy
Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin

Mathias Duplessy is a wildly eclectic French composer and multi-instrumentalist with an interest in classical music – Ravel, Stravinsky & Prokofiev in particular – and in world musical cultures, especially the music and guitar-like instruments of India, China and Mongolia. He is astoundingly prolific, having written scores for several dozen feature films and documentaries, and made more than two dozen recordings.  As a performer he is described by one critic for Radio-France International in following terms:

A guitarist of the highest virtuosity, Mathias Duplessy is one of those rare performers capable of shining in every genre: classical, jazz, oriental music, flamenco … As a composer he has assimilated all of these styles in order to compose and perform music that is uniquely his own, alive and personal, brilliant and coming from deep within, sensitive and yet contemporary.

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The composer has provided these notes on his new Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin.

“These are three differently coloured tableaux, imprinted with different influences: film music from the 1970s, a bit of Ravel or Prokofiev, some jazz and some Baroque influences. It’s music with passion and vital energy. Just like Miloš and Avi, who are formed by different cultures, and love so many different styles.

The first movement is something of a homage to Ennio Morricone. It’s a movement based on arpeggios in the guitar idiom, fast and dramatic, over which the mandolin lays down a tuneful melody with a certain nostalgic quality.

The second movement features a romantic-style melody that unfolds in tremolo in the guitar, to which the mandolin adds its own tremolo. I was really intrigued by the sound of these two instruments both playing in tremolo.

The third movement is a funny kind of mix. I wanted it to be a fun movement in which Miloš and Avi toss out challenges to each other, with virtuoso fireworks, with an energy at times jazzy, at times gypsy, and harmonies that travel between the Baroque and Prokofiev.”

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in B minor  K 27
Sonata in D major  K 96

The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of Spain, not to mention the flurries of repeated notes, octaves and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.

The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half that ends in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K.) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L.) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.

The Sonata in B minor K 27 exemplifies many features of Spanish guitar music. Right from the opening (mm.3-6) you hear the flamenco Phrygian mode in the four-note descending bass line known as the “Andalusian cadence.” Even more guitar-like are the extended passages of rippling broken-chord figuration – but just how extended is one of the intriguing interpretive challenges of this sonata. There are in fact passages in both the first and second halves of this sonata in which the same measure is repeated – verbatim (!) — seven times in a row.

The Sonata in D major K 96 is sound theatre of a high order. While guitar figuration is in evidence here as well, especially in the many passages of repeated notes, more imposing on the ear is the military flavour of the opening trumpet fanfare, the trilled flourishes of snare-drums, and the stomping cadence patterns with big cadential trills. Add in copious passages of hand-crossings and you have a performance show-piece worthy of opening a piano recital.

 

Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana  Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented for Robert Schumann the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fictional writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.

Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work is comprised of contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.

Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.

Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.

Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the Sehr lebhaft (very slow) fifth movement and fugato in the Sehr rasch (very quick) seventh, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.

But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1874 Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring the paintings, drawings and sketches of the Russian artist, architect and designer Victor Hartmann (1834–1873), who had died the previous year at the age of 39. Aggrieved at the loss of his friend and fellow artist, Mussorgsky set about to create his own unique memorial to Hartmann in a piano suite comprising 10 musical depictions of the works he had seen in St. Petersburg, with a recurring intermezzo melody, the Promenade, to represent the composer as he strolls along between the works displayed.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an overtly nationalist work, as is evident from many of the scenes he chose to set to music: fairy-tale creatures from Russian folklore, everyday life in the Russian countryside, and landscapes symbolic of the nation’s glorious past. This nationalism extends to his musical vocabulary as well, which at times evokes the melodic style of Russian folk tunes, at other times the austere choral hymns of the Orthodox Church and the clangorous resonance of cathedral bells.

Very Russian as well is Mussorgsky’s expressive vocabulary, which is raw, bluntly chiselled and often brutally direct, with a pictorial vividness that anticipates modern film scores. Sometimes he is Warner Bros. cartoonish, as in his depiction of the animated scurrying of gaggles of small chicks in their shells, or the chatty bickering of women in the market square. But more often it is the dark side of this alcohol-addicted composer that comes to the fore. His ghoulish evocations of the spirits of the dead put one in mind of The Blair Witch Project while his terrifying portrait of the lumbering, child-eating witch Baba Yaga recalls the most panicky chase scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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The Promenade opens the work, proceeding at a walking pace of even quarter notes structured in an alternating pattern of 5/4 and 6/4 measures. As it recurs throughout the work its forthright melody is delivered at times sparely, in a single line, at other times richly harmonized, grand and imposing, to reflect the imposing size and stature of the composer himself as he travels from picture to picture.

We are first presented with the arresting portrait of The Gnome, whose darting movements are immediately suggested by restless keyboard gestures and sudden contrasts of dynamics. You can almost see him, scrambling into a corner, crouching down, then springing up with a toothy grin. Set in the rather ‘evil’ key of E-flat minor, this portrayal is chock full of ugly chromatic intervals. And the disquieting left-hand trills in the final section only add to the sense that this menacing mischievous creature is up to no good.

After a soft and almost heavenly rendition of the Promenade, we come upon The Old Castle, which represents a troubadour singing his mournful song before a mighty stone fortress. The melody is modal, suggesting the Middle Ages. A dull throbbing pedal point, droning throughout, creates a blurry tonal mist that casts the scene far back into the legendary past.

The Promenade that follows is strongly assertive, projected in bold octaves and full chords, leading to the first whimsical scene in the collection, Les Tuileries. Here we witness the animated scene of children at play in the Jardin des Tuileries, a public park in Paris where nannies would often take the young ones in their charge for a bit of fresh air. An ostinato of coy rocking chords opens the scene and continues throughout, regularly relieved by short scampering scale passages, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and youthful exuberance of the frolicking tykes.

Next comes Bydło, a scene emblematic of the daily struggles of rural life. A Polish oxcart heaves into view from afar, the plodding of hooves getting gradually louder as it draws near, and diminishing as it passes off into the distance.

A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.  Keen to be released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter about in their shells so as to get out and explore their new barnyard home.

We are then introduced to the two Polish Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the first rich, arrogant and overbearing, the second poor, craven and whimpering. The frequent use of augmented 2nds in scale patterns is meant to suggest the character of traditional Jewish music. Such caricatures testify to the casual antisemitism that blighted Russian culture in the late 19th century, and that continued to stain the nation well into the Soviet period of the 20th century.

A repeat of the opening Promenade suggests a new beginning for our art tour as we enter The Market at Limoges, where the local women are engaged in a raucous, finger-pointing, shoulder-poking dispute over some trivial matter, their hysterical exchanges indicated by a constant chatter of 16th notes.

Then as the fracas is reaching its height of hysteria, we are stopped ‘dead’, as it were, by the arresting sight of Catacombs, where the implacable finality of the grave is symbolized in a series of starkly dissonant chords alternating in dynamics between loud and soft. Soon we are ushered even nearer into the presence of the dead in a section entitled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead, in a dead language) in which spooky octave tremolos in the treble accompany intimations of the eerie peacefulness of post mortem subterranean existence.

We are then jolted out of this bittersweet reverie by the sudden arrival of the witch Baba Yaga who lives in The Hut on Chicken Legs—an unusual kind of home construction, to be sure. In Mussorgsky’s depiction we catch her out on the hunt, stomping her way around the forest in search of prey, her terrifying gait easily a match for the glass-jiggling foot-fall of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park. A quieter, but no less unsettling middle section with some bitonal writing brings us little relief from the sheer nightmarish terror of this scene.

Then just as the monster is closing in on us, ready to grab us by the heel, we are saved by the appearance of The Great Gate of Kiev, imagined from a sketch by Hartmann for a gigantic entrance gate to be constructed in Kiev, ancient capital of the state of Kievan Rus whence the Russian nation traces its origins. The awe-inspiring majesty of the scene is evident from the proud chords that underpin a transfiguration of the Promenade theme as the scene opens out before us. A solemn hymn steeped in the tonal colours of Eastern Orthodox choral singing twice interrupts this stern processional  to sprinkle holy water on the proceedings. Eventually the piercing metallic peel of cathedral bells is heard, interspersed with reminiscences of the original Promenade theme chiming in the high treble, as Mussorgsky strains to make the piano proclaim the same ecstatic utterance that crowned the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov: Слава! Glory!

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 3 in E major  BWV 1006

If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 of 1720 reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitation of the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillfully constructed melodic lines that sit idiomatically on the fingerboard.

Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) sandwiched in the middle, right before the zinger finale, the gigue.

The dances would be two parts, each repeated, with ornamentation added at the player’s discretion the second time round. Needless to say, these are not pieces meant to accompany actual dancing. They are imaginative recreations of dance genres that reproduce the general character and identifying rhythmic signature of each.

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Bach’s Partita No. 3 in the ‘bright’ key of E major – E being the top string on the violin – is an exceptionally cheery collection of dance pieces. In composing the line-up, Bach keeps the gigue finale but chucks out the allemande, courante and sarabande of tradition and instead gives pride of place to the faster, more rhythmically buoyant galanterie dances.

But to open the suite he adds a glittering Preludio that begins with a celebratory fanfare on the E major triad tumbling down two octaves in rhythmic figuration to capture our attention. What follows is a moto perpetuo of continuous 16th-note motion bobbing and weaving through a succession of related keys, keeping our ears alert with unpredictable phrase lengths, perky syncopations and captivating violin idioms such as bariolage (a succession of notes played on alternating adjacent strings, one stopped, the other open).

Bach obviously liked his handiwork in composing this piece, as he twice re-used it in fully harmonized settings for organ and chamber instruments, the version known as Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29 later becoming Track 1 on the epoch-making Moog synthesizer album entitled Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos.

After this bouncy beginning comes a contrasting movement, the slow and majestic Loure, a dance form rarely seen in Bach, although the Fifth French Suite has one.  This dance is characterized by a gentle lilt and heavy emphasis on the first beat of the bar, facilitated by a quarter-note-eighth-note upbeat. Often called a “slow gigue,” it kicks up its heels as if swimming in molasses.

Also rare is the form in which Bach presents the following Gavotte, namely en rondeau. The rondo pattern, consisting of an opening refrain theme alternating with intervening episodes, was later to become the standard format for sonata finales in the Classical era but here Bach uses it to structure his gavotte. One of the ‘lustier’ dances in the suite, the gavotte was danced with a lifted step and a skipping forward motion, embodied musically in a characteristic half-bar upbeat and short-short-long rhythm. Both the Preludio and this Gavotte en rondeau have become crowd-pleasers and are often played as independent pieces.

Daintier and danced with a more delicate ‘shuffling’ gait is the Minuet and Bach gives us two in a matched pair. When galanteries come in pairs like this, tradition says that the first will be repeated after playing the second, to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern. And here, as often occurs, the second minuet is of a pastoral character, indicated by its drone figure.

The most boisterous member of the set is the Bourée, a dance that begins with a quarter-note upbeat and features a fair amount of syncopation, especially in the opening phrase – which makes the underlying rhythm a bit hard to parse on a non-percussive instrument like the violin. This is soon compensated for in what follows, however, as symmetrical repeated phrases are sounded out first forte and then piano, in an echo pattern.

The Partita ends with Gigue in the Italian style, which is to say a hop-filled romp with plenty of harmonic and melodic sequences centred around chordal figuration. The quasi-moto-perpetuo feel of this finale makes for a balanced ending to a suite that began in just the same way.

 

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Blue/s Forms

While the name of the Black American pianist, composer and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson might not be a household name, he is well worth remembering for his remarkable musicianship and accomplishments in a wide range of musical endeavours.

Born in New York in 1932, his mother named him after the Afro-British composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who in turn had been named after the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Educated at NYU, the Manhattan School of Music and Princeton University, Perkinson composed instrumental and vocal music, as well ballet and film scores, but refused to be pigeon-holed as a composer of ‘serious’ music. Jazz and popular music engaged him equally and he wrote arrangements for Harry Belafonte and Marvin Gaye, performing as well as a jazz pianist in the Max Roach Quartet.

Blue/s Forms (1972) for solo violin is dedicated to violinist Sanford Allen (b. 1939), the first African-American violinist hired by the New York Philharmonic, who premiered the work at Carnegie Hall. The work is in three movements and plays on the idea of the “blue” notes – the flat 3rd and flat 7th degrees of the scale – used in jazz.

This play on major and minor intervals is evident right from the start in the arresting opening of the first movement entitled Plain Blue/s, with its slip-sliding double-stops and soulful swing. Just as ‘blue’ and even more soulful is the meditative and painfully lyrical second movement, Just Blue/s. The concluding movement, Jettin’ Blue/s, channels Paganini through the rollicking musical personality of the country fiddler.

 

Eugène Ysaÿe
Sonata No. 2  Op. 27 No. 2 (“Obsession”)

Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them) and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed. Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist and the respect accorded to him by composers is indicated by the number of important works dedicated to him: the César Franck Sonata (a wedding present for Ysaÿe), Chausson’s Poème, and string quartets by Debussy, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op. 27 after hearing a concert by the violinist Josef Szigeti in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the contemporary violinists he knew.  The second in the set, the Sonata in A minor, is dedicated to the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880–1953) and bears the nickname “Obsession” (given by the composer himself) for its repeated quotations, in all four movements, of the ominous Dies irae (Day of Wrath) chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, giving the sonata as a whole an aura of supernatural spookiness and an undercurrent of ghoulish intrigue.

The opening Prelude begins with a direct quote from the opening of Bach’s Partita No. 3 followed immediately by a grotesque parody of this same opening, marked brutalement in the score. The Bach Preludio was Thibaud’s favourite warm-up piece and Ysaÿe may well be having a laugh at his friend’s expense in this shocking opening sequence. As much as this movement is a homage to Bach, it soon has to deal with the intrusive presence in its rush of moto perpetuo 16th notes with the sombre Dies irae tune, elbowing its way into the ear between cheery quotes from the Bach Partita.

The Malinconia that follows, as its name suggests, is a two-voice lament, played in the rhythm of a sicilienne con sordino (with a mute), an unusual indication in a sonata movement. The Dies irae theme only appears at the very end, over a dreary drone tone, like a sombre warning of death.

The chant tune is very present, though, from the very beginning of the third movement Danse des ombres (Dance of the shadows) in the sarabande theme played pizzicato at the opening. This theme spawns six variations of increasing complexity and animation until the opening theme returns, played arco in majestic multiple-stops, to close the movement.

The finale, entitled Les Furies, then bursts out in alternating fits of passionate multiple-stop declamation and ghostly haunting renditions, sul ponticello, of the Dies irae theme to bring this sonata to a conclusion in a mood of demonic defiance.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach 
Partita No. 2 in D minor  BWV 1004

Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin is a work of imposing gravity, a work astonishing as much for the inventiveness of its small-scale figuration as for the brilliance of its architectural construction.

As a dance suite, it sits in diametrical contrast to the galenterie-focused Partita No. 3 in E major in having among its dance movements nothing but the four canonical types – allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. But usurping the last word usually accorded to the gigue, it adds a majestic chaconne that exceeds in length all four of them together, making this dance suite, as a whole, heavily end-weighted in its aesthetic momentum.

This tilt towards the final movement comes largely through the way in which the dances preceding it are composed. It’s as if they are all waiting for the finale, expecting its arrival, giving hints along the way that something big is about to happen. Taken together, they are like a long intake of breath that finally gets released in the Chaconne.

The premonitions in this build-up are many and varied. While the suite’s allemande, courante and gigue each have their own character – evenly-paced, flowing and jumpy, respectively – they all follow a similar harmonic layout, somewhat effacing their individuality as independent pieces. They modulate to the same keys, in the same order, as if they were just melodic variations on the same harmonic pattern – as in a chaconne. And all three overwhelmingly consist of single melodic lines, further diminishing their sound impact in comparison to the bold thunderclap that strikes the ear in the opening bars of the finale.

The problem of creating full harmonies in a single-line texture is addressed by Bach by his use of the style brisé (“broken style”) typical of 17th-century French lute music, a style of writing in which chordal progressions are “broken up” into irregular and unpredictable patterns of arpeggios and running notes. In such a texture the ear is constantly engaged in the process of ‘re-composing’ this expanded version of the underlying harmonic and melodic patterns into something simpler. The profusion of notes created also offers greater opportunity for expressive nuance in performance.

Not all of the dance movements, though, are composed in this way. The third dance movement prophetically announces the finale (a) in its genre, a sarabande, like the chaconne, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar; (b) in its texture, rife with multiple-stops; and (c) in its melodic material, some of which anticipates the same figuration in the finale.

When the Chaconne does arrive, it comes in the form of a sarabande variée comprised of 64 variations on a four-bar harmonic pattern presented at the outset, the harmonies determined by a repeating bass line. There are 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, the arrival of which marks a dramatic change in mood, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon. Among the many ways he finds to say the same thing over and over again, harmonically speaking, are: varying the note durations, from half notes down to 32nds; alternating simple scalar patterns with chromatic variations on them; unpredictable melodic lines in style brisé contrasted with clearly patterned sequential repetitions; tightly focused melodies in a small range alternating with wide-ranging spans of arpeggiation and running notes; single-line melodies alternating with two-voice textures; echoing call-and-response patterns between contrasting registers; single melodic lines that gradually evolve into chordal figurations whipping across all four strings in a continuous pattern of rocking arpeggios; and various sonic ‘tics’ (in popular music they would be called “hooks”) such as bell-like notes repeating through the texture in various registers.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Juho Pohjonen

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasy in C minor  K 475

The year 1785 was a good one for Mozart. In the words of musicologist John Irving, he had become something of a ‘hot property’ in Vienna, enjoying considerable success both as a published composer and as a performing musician. But Mozart had also acquired a reputation as a gifted improviser, if we are to believe the swooning testimony of Johann Friedrich Schink in his Literarische Fragmente of 1785:

And his improvisations, what a wealth of ideas! What variety! What contrasts in passionate sounds! One swims away with him unresistingly on the stream of his emotions.

One notable occasion at which the ecstatic Schink might have needed his swim trunks and inner tube was a benefit concert which took place on 15 December 1785 at one of Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Mozart had become a Mason the previous year and for this concert contributed a cantata as well as a piano concerto, and for the grand finale of the evening held forth with his own ‘fantasias,’ i.e., improvisations.

Was it by coincidence that, just the week before, an advertisement had appeared in the Wiener Zeitung announcing the publication by Viennese publishing house Artaria of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor (K. 475) paired with a keyboard sonata in the same key (K. 457), or was it merely clever marketing?

This original pairing of fantasy and sonata in the same publication has led many pianists to perform the two works together as a single unit, the fantasy serving as an elaborate ‘slow introduction’ to the sonata. The young Beethoven may have thought the pairing aesthetically effective when he composed his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 in 1798. Apart from the shared key, the Pathétique shares many characteristics with the fantasy-sonata publication, its fp opening followed by a sigh motive being only the most obvious.

Then again, the original joint publication might simply have been for commercial convenience, since the two works were composed a good half-year apart, and Mozart is known to have performed the fantasy as an independent work. Indeed, the Fantasy seems to have had an unusually high profile in the decade after its publication, spawning pirate editions in Mannheim and Berlin, and even making a cameo appearance in contemporary literature when performed by a character in Wilhelm Heinse’s experimental novel Hildegard von Hohenthal (1795).

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Mozart’s Fantasy is comprised of six sections of contrasting character, alternating between deeply expressive, modulating passages and more harmonically stable sections of melody and accompaniment that would be perfectly at home in any sonata movement. Remarkable in this work is the unusual vehemence of expression in the two central modulating sections. The first of these, with its jangling tremolos of alarm in the treble, would not be out of place accompanying a silent movie in which a young girl is being tied to the railroad tracks. The emotional intensity of the ‘escape operas’ of the 1790s was evidently already on the horizon. Remarkable as well is how Mozart exploits the full range of the keyboard in the cadenza-like sections, especially the deep bass register. Indeed, passages occur in which both hands play below middle C.

Despite its harmonic wanderings to remote key centres, the final section of this work is in a solid C minor, providing a degree of symmetry to balance the wild turbulence that characterizes its emotional trajectory.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Scholars are divided as to whether or not this was Mozart’s intention. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

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The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect, associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany, called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Tony Siqi Yun

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor  BWV 1004
(arr. Busoni)

The 19th century witnessed a revival of interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. But the sound world of the 19th century with its new spacious concert halls and louder, more powerful instruments (played by ego-driven virtuoso performers) flourished at some remove from the tightly focused, spiritually introspective sound world of Bach from the previous century—especially in the realm of keyboard music.

The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel-framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription. And in the 19th century, the transcribers were legion.

Each transcriber saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a moody, solitary figure sitting at his organ, capable of making the great stone walls of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche shake and tremble with the force of his musical personality.

It is natural that Busoni should have been attracted to the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, as this work stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges it poses for the performer and the crystalline brilliance of its formal design.

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The chaconne is a musical form in which a recurring bass line or succession of chords serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. It presents an evolving set of ever more probing variations on the repeating bass line D C# D B♭ G A D given in the first four measures. The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon.

The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor. Busoni’s conception of the Chaconne is grandiose in the extreme. He grants himself full licence to take advantage of the sonic resources available on the modern grand piano, even extending those resources to write multiple-register chord spacings more typical of the organ.

While Busoni includes many pizzicato and spiccato textures that imitate the native capabilities of the violin, his adaptation is exceptionally ‘pianistic’ in conception. There are, moreover, clear indications that he had orchestral sounds in mind for many of the variations. His evocation of an orchestral brass choir is astonishingly accurate in the quasi tromboni variation at the beginning of the major-mode section, as is his imitation of timpani and tubular bells in the variation that follows not long after, with its pulsing low pedal notes alternating with chiming high octaves.

But it is the snarling timbre of the organ and ponderous peel of swaying church bells that takes this work to its conclusion, as Busoni brings the piano’s rich low register to bear on the last emphatic statement of the Chaconne’s majestic harmonies in its final bars.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ  BWV 639
(arr. Busoni)

The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice. Whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the church choir, or artfully refracted into a complex web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude, it presented to the congregation the word of God in the vivid pictorial rhetoric of a musical setting.

In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint in smaller note values, either derived from the same melody, or commenting on it.

This distinctive ‘layering’ of different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical device but a theological statement about the make-up of the cosmos. It painted an image of God and his flock musically depicted in a hierarchy of spiritual importance. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God in the universe while its chattering contrapuntal accompaniment gave voice to human striving here on earth below.

In Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ (I call unto you, Lord Jesus Christ) the plaintive chorale melody is clearly heard at the top of the polyphonic texture. In the mid-range of this stratified texture little 16th-note sigh motives of pathos echo in the spaces between the long melody notes while in the bass a steady succession of 8th notes paces out the measure of eternity with infinite patience and sympathy. In Busoni’s transcription these bass notes, doubled into octaves and harmonically thickened, add a rich vein of overtones for the pianist’s pedal-foot to sift, providing a sonic haze of divine mystery to the quiet gravity of mood characterizing the whole.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 15 in D Major  Op. 28  (Pastorale)

The moody and rebellious Beethoven of legend is nowhere to be found in his gentle and understated Piano Sonata in D major Op. 28 (1801). Like the Sixth Symphony (1808) it carries the nickname Pastorale for its vivid evocation of the peace and contentment of country life, symbolized, particularly in the opening and closing movements, by the classic tropes of rustic music-making: open 5ths and bagpipe-like drone notes in the bass, melodies simply harmonized with the I, V and IV chords, and a preference for dance-like triple metre.

The sonata opens in just this way, with a soothing timpani-like drone note on a low D that shepherds the opening melody, with its many loving sigh motives, on a lyrical octave descent. Just at the end of the first phrase, however, the melody rises a short distance to end with a little melodic ‘flick of the tail’. This little ‘tail flick’ seems at first to be a throw-away a gesture but gathers significance as the movement progresses, eventually motivating the stormiest section of the development, and serving as a final thought in its closing bars.

The steady pulse of the hushed drone tone on D, repeated more than 60 times, makes the opening almost drowsy-making. The exposition seems to unfold in a placid succession of daydreams, sleepwalking through tonal space in smooth scalar motion from musical thought to musical thought. The only break in mood comes from the occasional sparkling run in the treble, startling the dreamer to sudden alertness…from which he then drifts back into reverie once again.

Eye-opening drama is reserved for the development section, when the major mode turns to the minor, contrapuntal conflict breaks out, and the long smooth lines of the exposition gradually disassemble into ever-smaller fragments pulling this way and that, like two dogs fighting over a bone—that is, until peace is restored for the recapitulation’s calm review of past events and a quiet close.

Having waxed lyrical for much of the first movement, Beethoven foregoes a deeply lyrical slow movement in favour of an enigmatic Andante in D minor with a contrasting middle section in D major. A teasing air of mystery hovers over the opening D minor section, reinforced by soft dynamic markings and sudden offbeat accents. The dainty trot of its left-hand staccato at the opening suggests a simple walk in the park, but the minor mode and creeping chromatic lines bespeak an air of concern, especially when in a subsequent phrase a pulsing pedal point in the mid-range refuses to yield to the pleading dissonances above. The major-mode middle section, by contrast, is almost comical in its playful exchange of pleasantries as it alternates stern gestures in the low register with coy, almost flippant triplet responses in the treble. This is Beethoven at his most arch. The closing repeat of the A section features a decorated version of the opening and even a cameo appearance of the B section—in the minor mode this time—but leaves unresolved the puzzling relationship between these two musical personalities.

The appeal of the Allegro vivace scherzo that follows is radically simpler. It opens with a succession of four long notes an octave apart, like an orchestra tuning up on the same pitch in different registers. This is followed by its opposite: four little bite-sized cadencing gestures confined to the mid-range. To these contrasts of register and rhythm, Beethoven then adds dynamic contrasts and textural thickenings to concoct a throughly engaging ‘note salad’ to entertain the ear over a vast swath of keyboard real estate. This ‘scattered barcode’ pattern of musical interest, though, meets its comeuppance in the central Trio section, in which a driven folk-like melody in the minor mode is repeated over and over with wildly different harmonizations.

The most rustic movement of all comes at the end in a lilting Allegro ma non troppo finale that, like the first movement, opens with a long drone on a low D and proceeds largely on the premise that sleepy time has arrived in the woods and village green.  Although constructed in the surprisingly sophisticated palindromic A-B-A-C-A-B-A structure of a sonata-rondo, it also resembles the first movement in seeking excitement in a development (the C section) dominated by the minor mode and contrapuntal confrontation. Those nodding off in the audience, however, will be roused from their slumber by the movement’s vigorous coda that transforms the opening drone motif into a major cymbal-crashing crescendo.

 

Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma  S 394

In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each year on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock-in-trade. Flash forward to the 1840s when Liszt, enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonished the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.

Bellini’s Norma (1831), best known for its celebrated aria Casta diva made famous by Maria Callas, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to choose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation.

Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from Act I to evoke Norma’s leading role in opposing the Roman occupiers, and from the finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.

The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece as well to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.

Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of cross-eyed countesses dropping like fainting goats at its premiere. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of the famous ‘three-hand effect’ pioneered by pianist Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871), in which a clear melody sounds out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below. This ever-so-clever piano texture is prominently featured in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.

Liszt’s treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”

 

Franz Liszt
Solemn March to The Holy Grail from Parsifal  S 450

Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual. It glorifies the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.

In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined military edge to it, as well.

Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.

In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.

Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mystery and religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.

 

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird Suite (arr. Agosti)

Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird was written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company, which premiered the work in Paris in 1910. Based on ancient Russian folk tales, it tells the story of the young Prince Ivan’s quest to find a legendary magic bird with fiery multi-coloured plumage. In the course of his adventures, he falls in love with a beautiful princess but has to fight off the evil sorcerer Katschei to eventually marry her. The suite presents the culminating scenes of the ballet in a piano transcription by the Italian pianist and pedagogue Guido Agosti (1901-1989), who studied with Ferruccio Busoni and taught Maria Tipo.

The Danse infernale depicts the brutal swarming and capture of Prince Ivan by Katschei’s monstrous underlings until Prince Ivan uses the magic feather given to him by the Firebird to cast a spell on his captors, making them dance until they drop from exhaustion.  The Berceuse is a lullaby depicting the eerie scene of the slumbering assailants, leading to the Finale, a wedding celebration for Prince Ivan and his princess bride.

Agosti’s piano transcription, completed in 1928, is a daunting technical challenge for the pianist. But then again, transcribing Stravinsky’s orchestral writing was always going to be a challenge, something like herding cats, because his signature melodic fragments emerge from every corner of the sound range, with tone-colours and timbral qualities outrageously difficult to capture on a single instrument. Many of his trademark sonorities result from widely spaced chord structures difficult to put within the grasp of the pianist’s mere ten fingers.

Most of the piano writing is laid out on on three staves in order to cover the multi-octave range of the keyboard that the pianist must patrol. The piano comes into its own in this transcription as a percussion instrument, to be played with the wild abandon with which a betrayed lover throws her ex-partner’s possessions off the balcony onto the street below.

Judging from the shocking 7-octave-wide chord crash that opens the Dance infernale, it looks like the first item over the railing was a full-length mirror. Agosti captures well the bruising pace of the action, with off-beat rhythmic jabs standing out from a succession of punchy left-hand ostinati constantly nipping at the heels of the melody line. The accelerating pace as the sorcerer’s ghouls are made to dance ever more frantically is a major aerobic test for the pianist.

Relief comes in the Berceuse, which presents its own pianistic challenges, mainly those of finely sifting the overtones of vast chord structures surrounding the lonely tune singing out from the middle of the keyboard.

The wedding celebration depicted in the Finale presents Stravinsky’s trademark habit of cycling hypnotically round the pitches enclosed within the interval of a perfect 5th. Just such a melody, swaddled in hushed tremolos, opens this final movement. It is a major challenge for the pianist to imitate the shimmering timbre of the orchestra’s brightest instruments as this theme is given its apotheosis to end the suite in a blaze of sonority that extends across the entire range of the keyboard.

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Seeing Double: The Doppelgänger Project
Reprinted courtesy of Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley, CA

“Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe/Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt” (“It horrifies me when I see his face/The moon reveals my own likeness…”). These chilling words from one of the poems in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder of 1827 depict the uncanny moment of recognition in Der Doppelgänger. Franz Schubert set this text to music the following year—shortly before his death—as part of a collection that was published posthumously under the title Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”).

Heine actually left this poem untitled to intensify the degree of shock and surprise when the narrator realizes he is seeing his Doppelgänger, whereas Schubert clues us in to the troubled emotional atmosphere with the ominous chord sequence heard at the outset. Here, already, is a phase in the process of responding and remaking a source that we might call “doppelgänging,” in the spirit of the Danish String Quartet’s ambitious Doppelgänger Project, an initiative that combines late chamber masterpieces by Schubert with new commissions by four contemporary composers.

The fuzziness around the term Doppelgänger is intentional. On the one hand, the word is used simply to refer to a harmless lookalike (a person who can even be sought out online via image recognition apps). But the mythic implications reach deep into the psyche, providing an obsessive  trope for the Romantics—the coining of the German term is attributed to the novelist Jean Paul, later a favorite of Mahler). The notion of deceptively identical appearances that can disguise polarities opens up yet another dimension embedded within the concept. One of Schubert’s own friends described the composer as having “a double nature—inwardly a kind of poet and outwardly a kind of hedonist.”

“I think everybody has an idea of what a Doppelgänger is,” says DSQ violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. “It can be a very mystical term filled with images and history and philosophy, but it’s also something that is a very physical thing.” Similarly, through its commissioning of the four composers, the DSQ wanted to give ample leeway to each to interpret for themselves how to respond or react to the Schubert work with which they have been paired. “We’ve only created the framework and want to see some sort of inspiration going back and forth between the two. They might quote the Schubert piece or they might write something completely different. We don’t know how they will respond to the challenge.”

For example, Danish composer Bent Sørensen wrote his contribution as a counterpart to the vast expanse of the String Quartet in G major of 1826, Schubert’s final work in the genre. He incorporates Doppelgänger-like gestures into his new score—a product of the pandemic lockdowns—right down to the Schubertian title Doppelgänger.

Later installments in the series include Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (born 1970), a student of Kaija Saariaho and the late Louis Andriessen, and her new quartet responding to the String Quartet in D minor from 1824, popularly known as Death and the Maiden. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has been commissioned to write a work that the DSQ will juxtapose with the A minor Quartet of 1824 (Rosamunde). Thomas Adès will round out the series with a piece that reacts to the String Quintet in C major from 1828.

What was the criterion for choosing the commissioned composers? “It was very hard because on one side we wanted composers we like to work with, who have a musical language that we like; but we also wanted something new, something different,” observes Nørgaard. While the DSQ have burnished their reputation as excitingly fresh and insightful interpreters of the classical canon, the Doppelgänger commissions offer a way to open up new horizons. “Each of the new pieces will be a challenge, because there’s going to be a different language for each.”

(c) Thomas May 2021

 

Franz Schubert
Quartet No. 15 in G major  D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, one inevitably wonders whether Schubert’s mimeographic profusion of ideas should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthy tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

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

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim to the ministrations of Morpheus.

This quartet is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is an ambitious quartet that lives in an enlarged sound world of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo, and replete with tutti quadruple stops that add an aggressive edge to its musical rhetoric.

Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the ‘sound-weight’ of the instruments into an imitation of an orchestral tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect. Equally ear-catching are the many sudden dramatic changes in dynamics (a Beethoven trademark) and the acrobatic pitch range within which the instruments sometimes move at rocket speed.

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

The Andante un poco moto is charged with mystery and suspense. It begins innocently enough with the cello singing out a simple hummable tune in its tenor register. This is a melody that proceeds at a drowsy ‘sleepwalking’ pace, its eerie stillness reinforced by gentle reminders in the accompaniment of its opening melodic leap and by the stabilizing presence of pedal tones in the harmony. But ever and again it plunges into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return, unleashing ‘horror-film’ tremolos that vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.  These two moods – the eerie dream and the nightmare – alternate throughout the movement until the night-wandering melody ends up back under the covers in the warm embrace of a major chord in its final bars.

The Allegro vivace scherzo that follows goes off like an alarm clock with volleys of rapid-fire repeated notes that vibrate with nervous energy in the minor mode, ricocheting through every register of the quartet’s range until relieved by the calming entrance of the central Trio section, a slow gentle Viennese waltz with a rustic drone in the bass.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. It opens with a hearty foot-stomping, knee-slapping tarantella theme with a type of gypsy-style merriment characterized by quicksilver changes between major and minor tone colourings. And its second theme is an utterly outrageous parody of a Rossini patter aria.

Schubert, too long? This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Bent Sørensen 
Doppelgänger for String Quartet

Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) is widely recognized as the leading Danish composer of his generation. His musical language is rife with microtonal inflections and harmonies blurred over with glissandi.  But for all his modernist techniques, his music is still rooted in clear rhythmic textures, and above all in melody.

“I dream in melodies,” he says. He is a composer determined “to tell my stories by melodies” but with an awareness that “melodies have a memory in themselves of something else.” Perhaps this is why Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim (1931-2010) has said of Sørensen’s emotionally fragile music that “it reminds me of something I’ve never heard.”

Bent Sørensen’s String Quartet No. 5 entitled Doppelgänger was given its world premiere by the Danish String Quartet at the Musiekgebouw in Amsterdam on September 11, 2021.

 

Franz Schubert
Der Doppelgänger (arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s mournful Lied Der Doppelgänger is one of the last in the collection that the composer wrote just before his death in 1828 and was put on sale the following year by his publisher, Thomas Haslinger, who thought it would sell well if marketed as Schubert’s “last farewell to song.”

It paints a mysterious night scene in which a man stands before the house where his love once lived. There he recognizes a spectral shape equally absorbed in sad remembrance: an image of himself.

Der Doppelgänger

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe
Und ringt die Hände vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

– Heinrich Heine

The Ghostly Double

Still is the night, calm fills the streets,
In this house lived my own sweet love;
She left the town long long ago
And yet the house stands still where it was.

And there stands a man too, staring on high,
Wringing his hands, in the thrall of pain;
I dread to look upon his face,
That moonlit figure I see is me.

You Doppelgänger, pale travelling companion!
Why do you ape my song of pain,
That torments me now upon this spot
So many a night, and so long ago?

– trans. D. Gíslason

Der Doppelgänger, coming near the end of the collection, is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise, depicting a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain.

The impassive, slow-moving chords of the accompaniment give no comfort at all to the lonely voice of the protagonist as he realizes he is descending into madness. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by having the singer circle round the same pitch over and over again, and by placing the singer’s vocal declamation—it could hardly be called ‘melody’—over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment,

This is a song without a melody, symbolic of a situation without hope, as dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.

(c) Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Ema Nikolovska

Mezzo-soprano Eva Nikolovska has curated an intriguing recital program of songs composed in the forty years between 1865 and 1905, a selection that highlights the changing styles of music emanating from three important centres of music-making.

From Vienna there are the contrasting voices of the traditionalist Brahms and his aesthetic adversary Hugo Wolf, from France the varied sound-pictures of Debussy and Ravel, and from Boston a small sample of the astonishing output of the first successful American female composer, Amy Beach.

*                              *                              *

Johannes Brahms
Wie Melodien zieht es mir  Op. 105 No. 1
Lerchengesang  Op. 70 No. 2
Der Gang zum Liebchen  Op. 48 No. 1
Ständchen  Op. 106 No. 1

Brahms’ compositional concern with structure and form made him a leading proponent of absolute (i.e., non-programmatic) music, and thus an unlikely contributor to 19th-century European art song, with its story-driven texts and pictorial modes of expression. And yet from his early twenties to his final years Brahms was a prolific composer for the human voice, publishing no less than 190 lieder for solo voice and piano, now staples of the recital repertoire, as well as numerous works for other vocal ensembles.

Like his instrumental works, Brahms’ lieder feature diatonic melodies supported by a strong contrapuntally-conceived bass-line that structures functional (not coloristic) harmonies. But his overriding ideal is really the direct expressiveness and guileless simplicity of traditional folksong which he imbues with an elegance of construction designed to please his audience of Viennese amateur singers. While written for an indoor urban audience, the aesthetic frame of reference of Brahms’ lieder, as with his Hungarian Dances, is the wide outdoors and the life of the country village.

*                              *                              *

Wie Melodien zieht es mir (It moves like a melody) features a teasingly abstract text, with a recurring reference to an unexplained “it” (es) that periodically moves the singer but the feeling doesn’t last. “It” wafts away like scent (Duft) when melody calls “it” forth. “It” vanishes like the greyness of mist (Nebelgrau) when captured in words or print. Only in the germinating bud (Keime) of lyrical poetry (Reime) is “it” (the poet’s message) revealed to the moistened eye of the receptive soul. A continuous flow of 8th notes in the piano accompaniment and constant small inflections in the harmony express both the singer’s free flow of thoughts and the way those thoughts evaporate soon after they appear.  The piano’s cascading arpeggios most often move in contrary motion to the melody line, as does the bass line, in keeping with good contrapuntal practice.

Lerchengesang (Song of the larks) is utterly magical in the vividness of its tonal imagery. The “ethereal distant voices” (ätherische ferne Stimmen) of the lark’s song, brilliantly evoked by a delicate two-note figure in the high treble of the piano, envelop the singer in a delicate haze of remembering as she closes her eyes to recall twilights “pervaded with the breath of spring” (durchweht vom Frühlingshauche). The splendid isolation of the singer’s musings is highlighted by intermittent silences from the lark (i.e., piano), allowing the melody line to suddenly stand out alone. The separate realities of the bird and its solitary listener are conveyed in cross-rhythms, with four 8th notes in the piano matched against triplet quarter notes in the singer’s melodic line.

Der Gang zum Liebchen (The walk to the beloved’s home) is an actual folk song text that Brahms found in a collection of  Deutsche Volkslieder and his setting is eminently folksong-like in its use of recurring rhythmic patters and melodic motives. The text describes the worries of a lover as he makes his way to the home of his beloved, tortured by anxious thoughts of her unfaithfulness or even her death, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The flickering changes in mode between minor and major reflect the lightning mood swings of the quickly pacing lover, but there is a fair bit of irony at play, as well.  The piano’s dance-like accompaniment (reminiscent of the famous accelerating passage of Chopin’s C# minor waltz Op. 64 No. 2) might easy represent the lover’s racing thoughts, but equally well conveys the piano’s twinkling sly suggestion that he frets for nothing because merriment aplenty awaits him upon his arrival.

Ständchen (Serenade) presents a very realistic depiction of a natural setting, with the moon shining brightly onto the mountainside, as three students play a serenade with a pretty girl nearby as their audience. Their instruments are a flute, a fiddle and a zither, the strumming of which is evident from the crisp arpeggiated chords of the piano’s opening.  We, as listeners, are witnesses to this scene, hearing how the pretty girl floats off into a reverie — to swirling piano figuration in the middle section. She daydreams of her fair-haired lover, whispering to him “Forget me not!” (Vergiss nicht mein) just before she wakes up with the final “zither strum” from the piano.

 

Amy Beach

Ich sagte nicht  Op. 51 No. 1

Three Browning Songs  Op. 44
The Year’s at the Spring
Ah Love but a Day!
I Send my Heart up to Thee

Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed prodigious talent while young as both a pianist and composer. At 18 she married Dr.  Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a wealthy Boston surgeon some 25 years her senior, and henceforth published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. Comfortable in the large-scale forms of orchestral, choral and chamber music, she was best known for the 117 songs for solo voice and piano that she published between 1880 and 1941.

Her harmonic idiom was the chromatic language of late Romanticism, with Liszt and Wagner as major influences, and her scores feature a wealth of chromatically altered chords and expressive modulations. She was particularly adept at creating restless, long melodic lines smouldering with lyrical intensity and crowned with impassioned climaxes. As an idealistic Victorian of Wagnerian sensibilities, she was acutely sensitive to the voluptuousness of music, but aimed to use it for a higher societal purpose. Impervious to the violent cross-currents of cultural upheaval transforming the early 20th century, she persisted throughout her career to believe that “the true mission of music is to uplift.”

*                              *                              *

The German text of Ich sagte nicht (I didn’t say) from 1903 paints the scene of two lovers blissfully staring into each other eyes, neither of them thinking or needing to say “I love you” (Ich liebe dich). Mrs. Beach’s Wagnerian inspiration is clear from the score’s creeping chromatic voice-leading and long appoggiaturas that recall a similar love-delirium in Tristan und Isolde.

In The Year’s at the Spring, the first of Three Browning Songs (1900), the heaving bosom of a Victorian matron bubbles over with excitement at the change of seasons, symbolized in a continuous chatter of piano triplets, while ecstatic upward leaps of a 4th in the melody line lead in mounting excitement to the famous concluding line: “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

A more serious note is struck in Ah Love but a Day, which deals with the subject of a wife’s distress at her husband’s losing interest in their marriage. The soulful pining quality of the melodic line as the song opens evokes the kind of wistful pathos that Gershwin would later incorporate into Porgy & Bess. But minor turns to major in the second half of the song as hope springs eternal in the breast of a faithful wife, musing over the thought: “The world has changed, look in my eyes, wilt thou change, too?”  The very last phrase, with its melody line intoning an unchanging 5th note of the scale, is a brilliant touch of dramatic tone-craft.

The rapture of true love returns in the third song of the set, I Send my Heart up to Thee! with a surging piano accompaniment that paints the welling up of tender feelings in the singer’s heart and the waves of the sea that symbolize these emotions in the text.

 

Claude Debussy

Trois chansons de Bilitis 

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to drum up enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality – a fin de siècle fascination of the time – he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho from the famously girl-friendly isle of Lesbos.  I undressed to climb a tree – writes Bilitis, in a mood for sharing as she voluptuates in her own contours – my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897-1898. Using modal scales, especially the Lydian mode with its raised 4th degree, he paints a vivid sonic picture of the ancient world, setting this trio of poems in free-floating speech-like declamation, the melody line often sitting on a single pitch or moving in small intervals. His harmonies are impressionistic, sometimes based on the whole-tone scale, with parallel 5ths in the bass a frequent device for rapidly shifting tone colours.

*                              *                              *

La Flûte de Pan (Pan’s flute) presents a scene that Mrs. Beach would hardly consider edifying. As the piano imitates a relaxed strumming of the strings of a lyre, a young woman, who has carelessly let slip her belt, wanders off wide-eyed, alone and belt-less, into a lush natural setting to look for it. There she meets a young man of pedagogical inclinations who kindly offers her a place on his knees for a kind of lap-dance music lesson so that she might learn to play his syrinx, or pan pipes. The wax that binds together the stiff reeds of the instrument, she notes in passing, is as sweet as honey on her lips. In a bid to improve her embouchure, the young man joins her in blowing into the instrument and the two of them remain cheek-to-cheek until their lips meet. As the evening draws on, frogs from a nearby pond are heard in the piano accompaniment, lending a chorus of amphibian approval to the young girl’s sexual awakening.

In La Chevelure (The Tresses of hair) the piano intones a blurry ostinato, preparing us to hear the viewpoint of the young man himself. He has had a dream, he tells the young woman, in which her tresses had coiled round him like a necklace, and mouth-to-mouth they had been united, like two laurel trees that share a single root. (The piano accompaniment perks up considerably here and rises to a surging climax.)  Untangling their limbs as they recover from this insight into forest ecology, the pace slows, the piano returns to the dream-like pulsing of the opening, and it’s all over but for the tender staring into each other’s eyes.

Le Tombeau des naïades (The Tomb of the naiads) commemorates the death of the mythological gods of the forest. A winter frost has overtaken the landscape as the young woman wanders in a daze, her hair caked with icicles and her sandals laden with snow.  The young man informs her that the cloven footprints of the satyrs she is following lead nowhere. The satyrs are all dead, and with them the nymphs who once frolicked nearby. (An echo of their laughter is heard in the piano accompaniment.) Breaking off a piece of ice from the now-frozen spring, he holds it up to gaze through it at the paleness of the sky.

 

Hugo Wolf
Nachtzauber
Nimmersatte Liebe
Auf einer Wanderung

Hugo Wolf  brought a new level of expressive intensity to the German lied. Obsessed with making his musical setting correspond to the poetic text in every dimension – melodic contour, harmonic colouring, voice-piano relationship, etc. – he stands as a miniaturist adherent to the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) ideal of Wagner, whom he adored, and a precursor to similar experiments in ‘absolute control’ carried out by serialist composers in the early 20th century.

In little more than 20 years he contributed a unique body of songs to the repertoire, grouped for the most part in collections focusing on a single poet or a single anthology of folk poems. His settings expanded the psychological dimensions of these texts but often went far beyond the intentions or even imaginings of the original poets.

*                              *                              *

Nachtzauber (Night magic) comes from a collection of poems by Germany’s pre-eminent Romantic poet of nature Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose recurring themes of wandering, nostalgic longing, and the passage of time are reflected in the text. Eichendorff paints a night-world made magical by an awareness of its mysteries. These he itemizes with a sense of awakening wonder tinted with intimations of the sublime.

A burbling spring is evoked by a murmuring ostinato in the piano as the song opens, an ostinato that will remain an unsettling presence in the harmonic texture throughout, despite a bass-line that often supports the melody with the standard moves of functional harmony. The singer’s melody line wanders chromatically in dream-like fashion, sensually describing the scene: the solitary marble statues beside the lake, the wondrous gleam of the valley as night falls – sights that prompt memories of flowers “that blossomed in the moonlit valley,” and the song of nightingales. But the pain of love is recalled as well, and the steady march of time. The song ends nevertheless in ecstatic defiance of all that has come before: Komm, o komm zum stillen Grund! (Come, oh come to the silent valley!)

*                              *                              *

Another collection of Wolf songs sets the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), a Lutheran minister and utterly unclassifiable German poet with a list of literary interests that included erotic poetry. Mörike’s Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable love) is not the sort of thing on which to base a Sunday sermon. Indeed, its sado-masochistic text would quite likely require the application of smelling salts to the fainting frame of Mrs. Beach, should she find herself in the pews listening to spiritual guidance of this kind.

The playful opening gestures in the piano establish a tone of mischievous mockery before the singer introduces us to the notion that trying to satisfy Love with kisses is like trying to fill up a sieve with water. For such is Love (So ist die Lieb’). To the syncopated off-beat interjections of the piano accompaniment, the singer allows as how kisses lead to bites until, like a lamb to the slaughter (Wie’s Lämmlein unter’m Messer), the girl’s eyes will say (with a dramatic octave leap downwards in the melody line): “Do go on, the more it hurts the better!” (nur immer zu, / Je weher, desto beßer!).

The song closes with the self-justifying thought that even wise King Solomon made love this way, to a musical setting that Wolf himself described as “a right old student’s song, damned merry.” While Mörike might well have been sending up these laddish sentiments in his poem, we can’t really be sure of Wolf, whose first sexual experience in a brothel when he was 18 gave him the syphilis that eventually drove him insane, and resulted in his early death at the age of 42 in 1903.

*                              *                              *

There is no doubt, however, of the sincerity of the joyous sentiments expressed in the last Wolf song in this recital, his setting of Mörike’s Auf einer Wanderung (On a walk).  Here a pleasure-seeking hiker passes through a small town, its “streets aglow in the red evening light” (In den Strassen liegt roter Abendschein).  From across the rich array of flowers on a window sill comes a voice like a choir of nightingales (Und eine Stimme schient en Nachtigallenchor). With a spring in his step and utterly besotten, he leaves through the town gate, his heart stirred by the Muse with a breath of love (O Muse, du hast mein Herz berührt / Mit einem Leibeshauch!)

Numerous colourful modulations document the miraculous changes in mood of the visitor as he passes through town. The piano’s joyous skippy accompaniment, as in many of Wolf’s songs, lives in a completely separate world from that of the singer, but one that nonetheless here complements the singer’s experience perfectly.

 

Maurice Ravel
Histoires Naturelles 

The 1907 premiere of Ravel’s nature documentary in music about four birds and an insect was an outright scandal. A major part of the pearl-clutching was occasioned by Ravel’s defiance of tradition in setting to music the prose poems of Jules Renard’s Les Histoires naturelles (1896) rather than choosing  verse poetry from the French literary canon. Setting fans even faster aflutter, he had abandoned the aristocratic rules of pronunciation according to which a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word was considered a separate syllable, as it is, for example, in the French version of O Canada: Ter-re de nos aïeux. This, to the French salon set, sounded like the language of the street, or worse, the musical hall.

Renard’s lighthearted anthropomorphizing of common wildlife makes delightful reading, and even more delightful listening in Ravel’s wittily conversational renderings. While caricaturing the poses and manners of these animals, the composer still retains a measure of sympathy for the guileless sincerity with which they live out their lives.

*                              *                              *

Le Paon (Peacock) is blissfully ignorant of how silly he looks as he gets stood up at the altar, still dressed in all his finery. Ravel doubles down on the humour by giving him a strutting French overture kind of piano accompaniment, as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.

The busy housekeeping chores undertaken by Le Grillon (Cricket), magically evoked by Ravel’s clockwork ticking accompaniment, make him out to be so adorable, you just want to pet him.

The pictorial representation of water, a trademark of impressionist musical imagery, is brilliantly accomplished in Le Cygne (Swan).

Le Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher) is the only one of the set in which the human is the animal being observed, wondrously captivated by the appearance of a wild bird on the end of his fishing rod.

La Pintade (Guinea fowl) is hilariously painted as the bully of the aviary world, disturbing every other creature with its loud cackling and enforcing its own pecking order on surrounding hens and turkeys.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

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