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Program Notes: István Várdai

Felix Mendelssohn

Variations  Concertantes Op. 17

Felix was not the only musician in the Mendelssohn family. His older sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was a prodigiously talented pianist and composer, although she chose marriage over a public career, and his younger brother Paul Mendelssohn (1812-1874) was no slouch as a cellist, to judge by the Variations Concertantes that Felix wrote for him in 1829.

The adjective concertantes in the title underlines the notion that this work was written for two solo instruments, not one instrument accompanying another. In the late 18th century sonatas for cello and piano were grossly lopsided affairs. In an age without sound technicians to turn a knob and boost the bass frequencies

in a chamber ensemble, piano sonatas were often published with an optional cello part doubling the bass line. This gave a bit of “oomph” to the lower regions where the sound of the early fortepiano, forerunner of the modern concert grand, was lamentably thin.

It was Beethoven who elevated the cello to the status of equal interlocutor in duo chamber works with cello, beginning with his Op. 5 sonatas for cello and piano. And Beethoven is an important point of reference in the musical style of this work (especially his Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26), although the spirit of Mozart hovers over the variation theme with its feminine cadence patterns, as well.

The compositional task, in sets of variations such as these, is to keep the listener’s interest engaged by constantly varying the texture and mood. Mendelssohn accomplishes this in pairs of tag-team variations that see first the cello, then the piano taking a leading role.

It is Var. 7, in which the cozy, parlour haze of Biedermeier domesticity is stripped from the theme in a minore variation with flying octaves in the piano part and operatic recitative in the cello, that points clearly in the direction of the Romantic era to come. Then, after reprising the opening theme in all its simplicity in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final variation takes things further in an extended coda of Beethovenian proportions that nonetheless tapers the work to an elegant conclusion in a mood of tranquility and repose.


Igor Stravinsky

Suite Italienne  (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky)

Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Pulcinella, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in May 1920, exemplifies the new neo-classical style which he adopted after the First World War. Setting aside the bold rhythmic experiments and gargantuan orchestral ensembles that had propelled his pre-war ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring  (1913) to international success, he looked instead to create more transparent textures, with fewer instruments, in direct imitation of music of the past.

The ballet Pulcinella features stories about the traditional stock characters of Italian commedia dell’ arte and Stravinsky’s musical score is equally traditional, using melodies from the gracious scores of Neapolitan opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Music this easy on the ears was bound to spawn arrangements and in 1932 Stravinsky and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky set to work on a version for cello and piano, completed in 1933.

Stravinsky’s aim was not to produce a mere pastiche of the earlier composer’s style, but rather a modernist re-imagining of Pergolesi’s melodies in a post-World-War world. He preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadences and Baroque ornamentation of the originals, but signalled a new modernist context for the work by means of numerous irregularities such as strong accents on weak beats of the bar and exaggerated dissonance in the bass-line—a clever way of increasing sonic resonance without thickening the score.

The Introduzione is the overture to the ballet, written in the Baroque ritornello style; that is, structured as a regular alternation between sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and sections played by a small group of soloists (concertino). These structural divisions are still audible in the cello and piano version, as well.

The gentle lilt and dotted rhythm of the Serenata  identifies it a sicilienne. It is based on the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes) from Pergolesi’s Il Flaminio (1735) but its overall mood of pastoral tranquillity also contained an odd hint of melancholy.

In the following Air, the cello plays the role of the socially awkward basso buffo Bastiano from Il Flaminio pleading his suit to the love of his life—unsuccessfully, to judge from the lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ‘nnamurato (1732) that follows.

The virtuoso showpiece of the suite is the Tarantella, set in the high register of the cello and featuring a whirlwind of melodies spun out at breakneck speed.

The Minuetto and finale  builds up gradually in excitement from its opening tone of sustained elegy until it finally explodes into an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an 18th-century comic opera finale, from which emerges a series of nostalgic reminiscences of the most hummable phrases from the overture.


Zoltan  Kodály

Sonatina for Cello and Piano

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are considered the fathers of Hungarian art music. Their work collecting wax-cylinder recordings of folksongs in the Hungarian countryside and in Hungarian-inhabited areas of Slovakia and Romania counts among the earliest contributions to the field of ethnomusicology. While the music of both composers displays clear signs of both their Classical training and their interest in folk culture, Kodály’s synthesis of these two influences was more easily received by the Hungarian public than that of Bartók.

At the heart of Kodály’s music is an interest in melody and his Sonatina for Cello and Piano of 1922 overflows with a passionate lyricism that situates it a direct line of descent from the cello works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvořák.

Structured in a type of sonata form without formal development, the work owes much of its pentatonic style of melody construction to Hungarian folk music, while its often shimmering piano textures, remarkable in their variety, are clearly influenced by the composer’s exposure to French impressionism and the music of Debussy in particular.


György Ligeti

Sonata for Solo Cello

György Ligeti (pronounced LI-ge-ti) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known to popular audiences for the use of his searing scores Atmosphères (1961), Lux Aeterna (1966), Requiem (1965), and Aventures (1962) used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

His early career, before he emigrated from Hungary in 1956, was beset with the difficulties inherent in working under a communist regime suspicious of artistic innovation and other “bourgeois” tendencies. His Sonata  for Solo Cello, which was banned by the Composers’ Union for its modernity, comes from this period.

The Sonata comprises two contrasting movements, the first composed in 1948 and the second five years later in 1953. The first movement Dialogo is written without fixed metre and depicts a conversation between a man and a woman—a conversation narrowly focused on a small range of topics, it would appear, given the amount of repetition of the opening phrases.

The second movement, entitled Capriccio, is a strictly metered moto perpetuo in 3/8 time that pays tribute to the virtuoso exuberance of Paganini’s famous Caprices for violin.


Johannes Brahms

Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 99

The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year- old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.

The first movement Allegro vivace opens in sweeping fashion with a feverish quivering of piano tremolos over which the cello sets out its thematic agenda in a series of bold fanfares. This pattern of tremolos will form an important unifying motif throughout the movement as a stabilizing counterbalance to the melodic fragmentation that characterizes the principal theme.

The second movement Adagio affettuoso is in simple ternary form. Its principal theme, sung out with full-throated fervour by the cello after a brief introduction, is remarkably chromatic but vocally lyrical nonetheless. The piano takes the spotlight in the minor-mode middle section, but then welcomes the cello back to sing out once again, its theme graced with an even more decorative accompaniment than before.

If the second movement belongs to the cello, it is the piano that captures the ear in the third movement Allegro passionato, a scherzo featuring strongly assertive keyboard writing that makes the piano a major presence in the sonority. Adding to its punch and impact are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms and “oomphy” syncopations reminiscent of those in the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor.  In this movement it is the cello that gets to shine in the middle section, where it hums out a wistful melody of irregular phrase lengths that suggests the influence of folksong.

The sonata concludes with a gentle rondo of uncomplicated design written in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83. The simple, rhythmically repetitive tune that opens the movement alternates with a series of short contrasting episodes that, even when cast in the minor mode, seem only designed to highlight all the more the contentment to be gained by returning to the major.

Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

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

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

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

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

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


Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

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

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

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

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


George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

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

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

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


Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

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

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

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

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

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

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


Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

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

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

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

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

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


Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Bryn Terfel

Idris Lewis
Cân yr arad goch (Ceiriog)

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

Meirion Williams
Gwynfyd – Y Cymro

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

Owen Williams
Sul y blodau

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

Frederick Keel
Salt Water Ballads

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

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

Jacques Ibert
Chansons de Don Quichotte

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

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

Bryan Davies
A Medley of Welsh Folksongs

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

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

Robert Schumann
Belsatzar Op. 57
Zwei Venezianische

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

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

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

Franz Schubert
Five Lieder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason


Program Notes: Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ernest Chausson
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gislason 2016


Program Notes: Richard Goode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach: 15 Sinfonias, BWV 787-801

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach: Italian Concerto, BWV 971

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Tetzlaff Trio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Igor Levit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Schubert
Moments Musicaux D. 780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Sir András Schiff (Tuesday, February 9)

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 62 in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52

Joseph Haydn wrote his last three piano sonatas on his second visit to England
(1794-95), keenly aware that the sound of the English piano was very different from
that of its Viennese counterpart. Viennese pianos were quick and responsive but
their sound, like their action, was light. English pianos had a heavier action, longer
keys, and a fuller, more room-filling sound.

The so-called London piano school (Clementi, Cramer, Dussek) excelled in
exploiting this beefier sonority to create keyboard textures brimming with dramatic
effects that played to the instrument’s strengths: full chords in both hands, frequent
dynamic contrasts, dizzying runs plunging from the top to the bottom of the
keyboard, and sugary double 3rds for an extra-sweet sonority in the upper register.

Haydn obviously knew this bag of tricks carefully, because his Sonata in E flat
contains all of them, and more. Opening boldly with a fanfare of full-textured 6-
and 7-note chords, its first 10 bars feature no less than five alternations between
forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a
good four octaves to a low E flat. The first theme abounds in double 3rds while the
second theme imitates the tick-tock action of a mechanical clock, a popular musical
motif of the period. Piano sonority is putty in Haydn’s hands, swelling with the throb
of orchestral tremolos, then subsiding in long held notes (a good example is just
before the development section).

A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the second movement sarabande, a
stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the second beat. Added
stateliness is assured by the double-dotted rhythm in the theme, but the real story
in this movement is in the ornamentation. The score is simply swimming in grace
notes and other grand ornamental additions to the melodic line, many of them
ecstatic runs gliding up to the high register in the manner of an improvising opera

The finale pulses to the beat of an army drum, introduced at the opening in a series
of repeated notes over a low bass pedal: the shepherd’s musette meets the military
tattoo. Adding to the comic tone of the proceedings, all this mechanical precision
is frequently stopped dead in its tracks by inexplicable pauses that often set the
listener up for a sound explosion and a burst of activity to follow. Add in more than
a handful of cheeky fz accents on weak beats of the bar and you have as good a
demonstration of Haydn’s impeccable musical wit as his keyboard music has to

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as
a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly
struggle and spiritual transcendence—in terms of the raw elemental building blocks
of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form
movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set
of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged
leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness;
a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to
emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity.
Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The second
subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than
heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually
large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the
divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble
and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the
second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental
change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic
gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of
contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three
variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through
its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration
accompanying the variation theme. The third variation arrives at a degree of elation
that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark
with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.
It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle
luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever
more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to
glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until transmuted into
the essence of the divine.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major, K. 576

It is a measure of Mozart’s genius that he always knew how to do the minimum
to create maximum effect. The texture of his piano sonatas are spare—just shy of
spartan, in fact—but within them thrives a wealth of musical content rich enough to
satisfy the broadest range of listeners, with attractive melodies, foppish ornament
and learned procedure all cohabiting the same small musical space. Such, in fact,
was his ability to create attractive multi-dimensional musical structures that the
listener—like an ultra-hip viewer of The Simpsons—must constantly be on the lookout
for insider jokes.

Take the first movement of his Sonata in D K. 576, for example, which begins
with as macho an opening as could be imagined—a triadic, hunting horn motif—
answered directly by a phrase with frilly trills and a feminine ending that Robert
Levin has described as coming from “Miss Goody Two-Shoes.” Not to mention the
tangle of imitative counterpoint into which this call-to-the-hunt soon falls. Bach,
on horseback? Seriously? Or is this just a craftily disguised musical representation
of the hunt itself, with the melody ‘chasing’ itself, musically? The gap between a
Mozart musical structure and the thorniest of British crossword puzzles narrows
considerably when the dimension of wit is considered.

An air of operatic dignity radiates from the lyrical slow movement, laid out in
the A-B-A form of the Baroque da capo aria, with its more active middle section
in the relative minor key. This middle section, however, is anything but singable,
being more in the style of a richly chromatic, free keyboard improvisation on its
underlying harmonies.

Carefree nonchalance rides in the same carpool with learned counterpoint in the
last movement rondo as an opening theme, so coyly inflected as to be almost
flippant, gets immediately roiled by a left hand of churning countermelody.
Compositionally, Mozart puts everything but the kitchen sink in this finale, with
virtuoso passagework in the style of a piano concerto sitting cheek-by-jowl with
canons and fits of double counterpoint, all the while maintaining a pose of naïve
simplicity and toe-tapping rhythmic regularity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B flat major, D. 960

It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who
represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert
represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal
models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic
manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the
psychological drama of personal experience.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s
pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he
lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical
air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless
daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three
major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of
unexpected, sometimes startling, modulatory surprises. By this means he blunted
the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving largescale
tonal tensions but rather directed the listener’s attention to the momentby-moment
unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even
these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what
Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences
within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and

Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprising that he favoured moderate
tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat
D. 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme
features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by
a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom
of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement,
repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of
the recapitulation.

A second theme of a more serious cast, and a third of hopping broken chords
round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes
like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner
anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona in works such as Die
Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development,
which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.

The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture
of layered sonorities, featuring a sombre but halting melody in the mid-range
surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds
like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one
that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved
only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.

The third movement scherzo is surprisingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its
mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and
exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre
and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden
accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and

One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous
movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which
keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but
quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnieshopping-in-a-box’
merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful
melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new
motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the
door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these
threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic
variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten
children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that
this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo
genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”

Donald G. Gíslason

Program Notes: Sir András Schiff (Sunday, February 7)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in B flat major K. 570

The period of the 1770s and 1780s brought regime change to the world of keyboard
music as the harpsichord was gradually edged out by the first generation of
fortepianos, capable of playing both loud (forte) and soft (piano) on the same set
of keys. The pace of development was dizzying, comparable to that of computers
today, with game-changing new models coming out every few years.

While Haydn delighted in exploiting the sonic capabilities of each new instrument
that came under his fingers, Mozart was much more conservative in his approach.
He remained generally much closer, in his keyboard writing, to the lean contrapuntal
textures of the chamber ensemble than to the bold new pianistic world of handcrossings,
extreme ranges, and pedal effects explored by Haydn.

Mozart’s Sonata in B flat K. 570 is a perfect example of his more conservative
approach. It opens with a meet-and-greet introduction to the home key: the B-flat
major chord is spelled out note by note, and the key is confirmed by a running
passage containing all the notes of the scale.

Then like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a
few ingredients, Mozart uses the opening theme as his second theme, as well—in
a contrasting key, of course, and cast into the bass. But it’s the very same theme,
presented anew with some entertaining contrapuntal chatter in the treble, and it is
this contrapuntal chatter that will dominate in the development section. Mozart is
masterfully economical in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and
over again, mixing garnish and main course at will.

The second movement Adagio opens with a theme somewhere between stately
and solemn, a theme as lovingly devoted to the notes of the E-flat major chord as
the first movement’s opening was to that of B flat. Written in the form of a rondo, it
features two contrasting episodes, each quicker in pulse, more expansive in mood,
and wider in melodic range than the more static refrain to which they reliably return.

The last movement Allegretto, with its recurring tick-tock beat, summons up
the mechanical world of clockwork music, and features some robotic C-3POstyle
humour in its comic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its
musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious
late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a
melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.
The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one
could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as
it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-andaccompaniment
texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic
lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It
is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone
and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this
movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply
compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of
the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section
is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd
Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin
liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in
equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard
grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with
rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers
of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of
tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by offbeat

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with
dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the
traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation
of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and
then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing and sympathetic
triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of reason
over emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh
motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident,
evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as
the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before,
until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could
only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological
resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder
and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new
mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly
elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata
concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of
the keyboard.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 61 in D major Hob. XVI:51

Haydn is known for his surprises and his 61st sonata does not disappoint. First there
is the unorthodox two-movement structure of the work, with an opening movement
at a gentlemanly Andante pace and a finale that could easily be mistaken for a
scherzo. Each movement, moreover, ends on a quiet note, suggesting that this was
not a concert work, but rather conceived for private performance with a feminine
sensibility as its aesthetic target.

Composed during Haydn’s second visit to London (1794-95) this sonata was
obviously written to exploit the heavier, more powerful sound of the English piano.
English pianos were more resonant than their Viennese counterparts, especially
in the treble, but had a slower action less suited to pearly passagework. So Haydn
goes light on thematic development, maximizing instead the sonic effects made
popular by the London piano school of Clementi, Cramer, and Dussek: frequent
dynamic contrasts, multi-octave arpeggios, and passages in double 3rds and double

The first movement begins with a snappy and ear-catching echo-dialogue between
right and left hands, quickly followed by a reply in stately dotted rhythms. A
strong current of vocally-inspired lyricism soon takes over in octaves with a triplet
accompaniment that strongly foreshadows the songful textures of Schubert.
Switching elastically between these two poles of collar-pulling excitement and
lyrical relaxation Haydn spins out copious variations of his material, maintaining all
the while a tone of leisurely amusement.

The same generosity of sentiment is evident in the finale, which despite its Presto
tempo indication proceeds in a moderately-paced succession of quarter notes for
much of its course. Beneath this placid surface of rhythmic uniformity, however, is a
lively pattern of rapidly changing harmonies, and a weak beat of the bar that keeps
aspiring to be the strong beat, jabbing you in the ribs with a gusto and relish that
would soon become known as ‘Beethovenian’.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in A Major D. 959

The wretched state of Schubert’s health in the last months of his life stands in
striking contrast to the vitality of his creative output in this period, exemplified by
his last three piano sonatas. The second of these, the Sonata in A Major, displays
in its four contrasting movements all the qualities that make this composer so
hard to pin down as either an inheritor of Classical-era forms or a brilliant pioneer
of the new Romantic movement, with its emphasis on psychological reality as a
structuring element in music.

Much of the confusion may be laid at the feet of Beethoven, whose shadow hangs
heavy over Schubert’s musical legacy. The argumentative force of the great
composer’s musical vision seems to relegate Schubert to the margins of musical
greatness by comparison. But then again, Schubert is not arguing with you. The
prize-fight atmosphere of Beethoven’s most compelling sonata movements, with
motivic combatants duking it out in the musical boxing ring, is hardly comparable
to the imaginative flights of fancy that make Schubert much closer to My Dinner
with André than to Rocky.

The first movement of Schubert’s A Major Sonata puts Classical and Romantic
musical gestures side-by-side. Solidly Classical is its stern opening comprised of
repeated motives driving to a firm cadence. And Classical as well is the strong
contrast between first and second themes, not to mention the eruptions of
contrapuntal ‘churn’ that roil the texture at regular intervals. But the Classical mould
is just as often broken in Schubert’s use of irregular phrase lengths, miraculous
modulations, and a pursuit of instrumental colour that sees cascades of octavespanning
arpeggios interpolated into the musical argument with the nonchalance of
a reader turning the pages of a book. Indeed, the closing bars of the movement are
awash in rippling waves of harmonic colour that foretell the poetic opening pages
of Liszt’s A Major Concerto.

Where Schubert sets his sights on the sublime is in the second movement, a tour de
force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle
section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles
fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More
wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and
eventually to a dramatic confrontation. When the hypnotic world of the movement’s
bleak opening returns, it finds itself accompanied by a strange knocking-on-thedoor
motive, resounding like a distant echo.

Another personality entirely inhabits the third movement scherzo, an energetic,
acrobatically playful diversion that hops from register to register with carefree
abandon, often dancelike, always impish. Its contrasting trio is much more of a
home body, staying put in the centre of the keyboard, stabilized by a recurring
pedal tone.

The sonata-rondo finale has many fathers, being a reworked version of the middle
movement of Schubert’s own Sonata in A Minor D. 537, patterned after the finale of
Beethoven’s Sonata in G Major Op. 31 No. 1, and with an opening theme strangely
reminiscent of the St. Anthony Chorale attributed to Haydn. In presenting his
material, Schubert often imitates a chamber ensemble, with melodies singing
out loudly from the mid-range, or passing antiphonally from treble to bass. The
development section goes through a bruising bout of orchestral-style turbulence,
but Schubert’s special fondness is for the pure singing tone of the piano itself. This
movement is full of melodies set against a burbling accompaniment in triplets, or
chiming up high in its register like a music box.

Donald G. Gíslason

Notice of Annual General Meeting + A Chance to Win

Notice of AGM

All members are welcome and encouraged to attend

The Annual General Meeting of the Vancouver Recital Society
Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 12:45pm
Royal Bank Cinema, Chan Centre, UBC

  1. Meeting Business

The membership will be asked to consider the following business matters:

  1. President’s Report
  2. Presentation of the Auditor’s Report and Financial Statements
  3. Appointment of the Auditor for the upcoming year
  4. Election of the Board of Directors by the members in attendance

Directors mid-term (not requiring re-election):
Poul Hansen
Mary Jane Mitchell
Stephen Schachter

Directors standing for re-election:
Tony Yue – re-elect for 2nd 2-year term
Jean Hodgins – re-elect for 3rd 2-year term
Gloria Tom – re-elect for 3rd 2-year term

Members standing for election include:
Maryke Gilmore
Rebecca Hunter
Tobin Robbins
Christine Mills

Brief biographies of each new member seeking election will be provided at the AGM.

Members wishing to make nominations of candidates for election should do so in writing, sent to the VRS office, attention Jean Hodgins, President, by end of business day Friday, February 5th, 2016. Nominations may be sent to 301-601 Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 2P1 /

  1. Sneak Peek!

Following the meeting business, VRS Founder and Artistic Director Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., DFA will provide a sneak peek of what’s to come in the 2016/17 Season.

If you can guess who the artist in the striking pose below is by Friday, February 5, you will be entered into a draw to win two tickets to her performance on Wednesday, November 30, 2016! E-mail your answer to

Winner (if there is one!) to be announced at the AGM!

The Tetzlaff Trio will perform following the AGM, as part of the Classic Afternoons at the Chan Centre Series. Performance time: 3pm.

At 2:15pm, Donald Gíslason will host a pre-concert talk in the Royal Bank Cinema.

For concert information, or to purchase tickets, please call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363, or visit

Secret Artist-2