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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
singer.

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
offer.

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
recapitulation.

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
exuberance.

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
counterpoint.

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
accents.

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
movement.

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
6ths.

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
    12:45pm

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 / info@vanrecital.com

  1. Sneak Peek!
    1:30pm

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 leilagetz@vanrecital.com.

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 vanrecital.com.

Secret Artist-2

Do you remember your very first musical memory?

When I was a boy my father would sing me to sleep every night. And when he went away on business trips, my mother sang to me at night instead.

Now, my mother, whom I love dearly (98 and going strong!) has many wonderful traits and abilities, including playing the piano. But singing perfectly in key isn’t one of them, and when she sang to me I cried instead of drifting off to sleep. We often laugh about it now, and thankfully, it convinced her I should take music lessons so there was a happy result.

And that beautiful memory of my father’s singing voice will always be with me.

When I moved back to Vancouver at the end of 2006 after twenty years away in New York, I went to the Chan Centre on March 23, 2007 to hear Alfred Brendel play. After so many years in the music business in New York, I had heard nearly every great artist in the world, and yet somehow had never heard Mr. Brendel perform. I confess I was a little burned out by the time we left Manhattan, and my youthful passion for music was a bit tarnished after years of managing and touring artists.

But I couldn’t miss the chance to hear one of the greatest artists of our time and an amazing thing happened as I sat listening to his awe-inspiring performance and extraordinary artistry – he called me back to myself! Mr. Brendel’s brilliance restored me, and rekindled the love of music that had been the animating force throughout my entire life. I can’t describe what a wonderful revelation that was for me.

It was an extraordinary gift. It is a VRS performance I’ll never forget, and one for which I will always be grateful to Leila Getz, the Founder and Artistic Director of this series. Leila has given each of us, and indeed this entire city, 35 years of inspirational memories.

What is your favourite VRS Memory? Please write and let me know your story.

SB signature
 

 

 

 

Sean Bickerton
Executive Director

 

PROGRAM NOTES: BRAHMS FESTIVAL


CONCERT #1

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1

If there was one great figure in European music that Brahms revered more than any other, that figure was Ludwig van Beethoven. With the Great Master’s bust looking impassively down on him from the wall of his Vienna apartment, feeling behind him the great “footsteps of a giant” jiggling every teacup on the shelf, Brahms was over forty before he published his first symphony and first string quartet, the two genres that his towering predecessor had dominated.

For the first work in each genre he chose a key darkly emblematic of the brooding temperament and explosive emotional energy of his musical forbear. Both his Symphony No. 1 and first string quartet are in the smoldering, fateful key of C minor, making them tonal step-siblings to the Pathétique and Op. 111 piano sonatas, as well as to the Fifth Symphony. This key, however, had more than mere commemorative value for the score of Brahms’ first string quartet. C-natural is also the lowest pitch on the cello, allowing the composer ample space for expressive depth in his string writing.

Indeed, the sound space occupied by this quartet, its outer movements especially, could readily be described as not just Beethovenian, but “symphonic”. It opens with an anxious orchestral tremolando, recalling similar effects in the C minor quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18, and the exposition of the Pathétique. Over top races an urgent rising figure that culminates in a downward leap of a diminished 7th, the same interval that opens the Op. 111 sonata. After a bit of metrical vertigo induced by the cross-grouping of rhythmic and harmonic patterns, we are stopped short by two sharp “exclamation point” chords. In a mere seven breathless measures, Brahms takes us from a furtive piano to a defiant forte, from a textural spacing of a single octave to a gaping expanse of four and a half—from the low C on the cello to a high-high A flat in the first violin—and from a pulse- quickening pace to an abrupt crash-test halt.

It is at this point that seasoned quartet-lovers reach down to fasten their seat belts.

More seriously lyrical material intervenes leading on to a second subject in E flat—more minor than major—but the restless mood continues unabated in continuous eight-note activity, with the notable emergence of a small da-da-da-DUM motive glinting with knowing winks back at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Following an emotional climax in cascading stretto, the exposition closes with graceful arabesques from the first violin to spread soothing melodic oil over the troubled textural waters.

The development transforms the movement’s opening pulses into a mere harmonic flutter before the heavy lifting begins and the themes of the exposition are jostled about at close quarters in invertible counterpoint. The recapitulation is remarkable for its coda, an intense accelerando of fz accents that pulls back in its final bars to end with a written out ritardando in the major mode.

Between the more rhetorically fraught first and last movements, Brahms inserts two miniatures of distinctly contrasting mood. The Romanze is a Mendelssohnian voyage into the domestic coziness

and Biedermeyer Gemütlichkeit of the middle-class drawing room. This is music to curl up with in front of a fire, with a cat in your lap. The close spacing of the string writing and restrained dynamic range add to the feeling of intimacy in this movement, which alternates between a warmly expressive opening theme, brocaded with melodic variation at its second occurrence, and a slightly more heart-fluttering B-section featuring pleading groups of sigh motives.

Where an extroverted scherzo in triple meter would normally be expected as a third movement, Brahms writes instead a darkly flavoured, but deeply ambivalent duple-metered intermezzo. While nominally in F minor, it coyly refuses to either confirm or deny the fact for most of its duration. Its pattern of little two-steps, stalked by a leering countermelody in the viola, evokes a mood of mischief (perhaps there is the scherzo quality) somewhere between mincing and menacing. This is music your cat would like. Its simpler, more harmonically clarified middle section—a ‘trio’, in effect—features a remarkable accompaniment pattern in the second violin in which the same pitch is repeated on alternating stopped and unstopped strings.

The fourth movement begins with an aggressive restatement of the climbing motive that opened the first movement, with its dramatic downward leap of a diminished 7th. So tightly argued is this sonata-form movement that its development and recapitulation sections seemed inseparably grafted together. While moments of soaring major-mode lyricism appear between the clouds to bring spiritual uplift to the argument, especially in the second theme, what remains in the ear after the final coda is the cello’s low C at the bottom of the string register, anchoring this work emphatically in its opening tonality of C minor.

Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2

At a time when European music was turning towards large programmatic orchestral works performed in grandiose public concerts, Brahms continued to write music created from just the basic building blocks of the tonal system, intended for private performance by small ensembles. In so doing, he established the foundations for a rich new literature of chamber works that featured hitherto neglected instruments such as the clarinet and viola in a leading role. Indeed, the duo-sonata literature for these instruments can be said to begin with Brahms.

His special interest in the clarinet came late in life when, in 1891, he encountered the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist in the court orchestra of Meiningen (Thuringia), noted for his warm tone and expressive playing. Brahms’ last published chamber works were two sonatas Op. 120 composed in 1894 for clarinet and piano (dedicated to Mühlfeld) and then re-issued with slight revisions by the composer in a version for viola.

The second of these, the three-movement Sonata in E flat, is remarkable for its relaxed ease of expression, its underlying ethos of moderation, both in mood and in tempo. It begins with a sinuous, songlike melody with many a winding turn but nary a care in the world. A second theme arrives, less meandering but equally carefree, that even the occasional outburst from the piano cannot perturb. This first movement is what a happy contented old age sounds like.

The formal contrasts that normally distinguish sections within first-movement sonata form are attenuated in this last sonata movement that Brahms was to compose. The fluidity of form is most keenly felt in the development section, where tumult is avoided in favour of civilized lyrical conversation. Despite the odd provocation from the piano, the blood pressure rarely rises beyond a slight quickening of pulse from duplets to triplets, so that the recapitulation arrives like a welcoming hostess announcing to her guests that dinner is served. The coda, marked Tranquillo, nudges the movement to a conclusion with the viola playing beneath the piano for the last chord.

The Allegro appassionato second movement is where one would expect real fire, but this is not a whip-cracking scherzo like that in the F minor piano sonata, nor the heaven-storming scherzo of the Piano Concerto No. 2. The passion here seems more remembered in affection than vividly lived through in the present moment. Its headlong impetus, most persuasively argued for in the massively demanding piano part, is blunted by the relatively gentle pace, one-in-the-bar rhythmic feel, and frequent use of feminine phrase endings. The middle-section trio is a fervent hymn-like elegy that maintains the seriousness of mood, contrasting only in the stern evenness of its steady quarter-note motion.

The last movement, Andante con moto, is a series of variations on a gracious theme with alternating two-note patterns of dotted and even notes. The first variation staggers the viola and piano parts with rhythmic offsets, sounding almost as if preparing for a fugato. In the second, the two instruments take turns enveloping the theme in a lace-like tracery of arpeggiation. The third variation intensifies the decorative detail into a constant patter of 32nd notes while the fourth slows down the pace to linger lovingly over the resolution of a constant chain of syncopations. The original rhythmic pattern of the theme returns in the fifth variation in a sparkling minor-mode treatment leading to the finale, which builds from an almost pastoral mood to one of vigorous celebration as the work ends.

Quintet for Clarinet & Strings in B minor, Op. 115

After hearing Meiningen clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1890, Brahms was stimulated to write four great works for this musician and his instrument: the Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114, two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op. 120, and this Clarinet Quintet in B minor, composed in 1891. Works for clarinet and string quartet were a rarity in Brahms’ time, the last great work in the genre being Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet of 1789. One reason could have been that woodwinds were notoriously tricky instruments to keep in tune, but the clarinet had undergone significant improvements in the course of the 19th century and Brahms was particularly captivated by the sweetness of tone that he found in Mühlfeld’s playing, a quality that he exploited to the maximum in this work, especially in its songful second movement.

Coming as it does near the end of the composer’s life, this work is often described as autumnal, no doubt from its generally subdued tone, the falling melodic lines that begin each movement, and the piano or pianissimo ending of each. Intriguing in the work as a whole is how easily and gracefully it glides between major and minor tone colourings, giving it an overall cast of nostalgia and bittersweet remembrance.

Its opening is unusually reflective and self-absorbed for the first movement of a chamber work. The daydreaming quality is reinforced by the tonal ambiguity of its first four bars, played by the strings: is it in B minor, or D major? The clarinet enters with a delicious arpeggio up to its high range, where long held notes allow its surpassing sweetness of tone to ring in our ears. A transition in strutting triplets leads us to a more flowing second theme, announced by the clarinet. After the repeat of the exposition, the development opens with the same rising arpeggio in the clarinet against even more hushed strings to begin the working out of the themes, which is motivically intense but emotionally contained, strangely serene. It is the recapitulation, indeed, that contains some of the most forceful musical assertions of the movement, but even these soon ebb to a quiet close.

The second movement Adagio, is undoubtedly the emotional heart of the work. It is here that the expressive potential of the clarinet is shown off to fullest advantage. It is also the most technically demanding movement for the instrument. This lyrical movement, like the movement that follows, is monothematic. It begins with three simple notes that bear the weight of the world upon them, a motive which clarinet and violin ruminate over constantly, as if in disbelief at what the world has come to. Beneath is an almost static, but sympathetic pulsing accompaniment of syncopations in the other strings.

But then something astonishing happens. While the strings continue to repeat this motive, the clarinet breaks with the pack and takes off like a gypsy fiddler in wild rhapsodic flights of fancy up and down the full range of his instrument. The strings soon join in with stirring tremolos, as if to imitate a Hungarian cimbalom orchestra. But reality sets in again, and the movement ends in the wistful mood in which it began, recalling the rising arpeggio that announced the first entry of the clarinet in the first movement.

These two movements occupy more than 2/3 of the work, so Brahms ends with two shorter movements: a scherzo that pretends not to be one, and a theme with variations finale. The third movement opens with a simple folk-like tune in D major, not far distant in mood and melodic gesture from the memorable C major anthem in the 4th movement of his first symphony, but then transforms it into a peppery scherzo theme in B minor that motivates much of this movement’s active motivic play. The D major ditty returns, however, to complete the framing of this “nested” scherzo.

Brahms’ last movement, like the last movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, is a theme and variations, the theme being much like that of the previous movement, written in simple note values. But here the mode is clear: we are unambiguously in a wistful B minor with a vaguely ‘antique’ feel to its cadences. The variations are part character pieces, part solo opportunities for various members of the ‘band’. The first features the cello in a leading role. The second is a wildly extroverted gypsy fling that would be welcomed at any Eastern European wedding celebration. The third is a chummy duo between clarinet and first violin, while the fourth features a chatty conversation between all instruments. The meter changes to 3/8 in the fifth variation, preparing for the surprise return of the opening theme from the first movement, as this work bids itself a final bittersweet farewell.

 

CONCERT #2

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2

As every parent knows, twins do not necessarily turn out alike. A case in point is the set of two string quartets, in C minor and A minor, that Brahms published as his Op. 51, works which share many characteristics, but differ in many more. There is between them a similarly intense employment of contrapuntal devices such as invertible counterpoint and canonic imitation. And there is, as well, a desire to create a wide-ranging unity of musical purpose by means of thematic links between movements.

Yet like many a second-born, the Quartet in A minor, the second of these quartet siblings, was less strictly bound than its elder brother to the rules and discipline that regulated how a polite young sonata movement from a respectable musical family should behave. While the opening of the C minor quartet is made to march in a rigorously uniform rhythmic pattern, the A minor quartet breathes free of such restrictions. It uses a more relaxed mixture of note values (indeed acting out with a 3-against-2 rhythmic pattern) and is even allowed to send its boy-pal a message to read with his secret decoder ring. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th notes of the opening theme (F-A-E) stand for Frei aber einsam (free but lonely), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), leader of the Joachim Quartet that premiered many of the composer’s new works.

While the melodic writing in this first movement is often characterized by improvisatory freedom, it is anything but unfocused, often displaying great strength of character. The second theme, for example, arriving after a solo arabesque from the first violin, is as lilting an evocation of Viennese elegance as any waltz by Strauss. And the development section is rife with dramatic outbursts, beginning with the tearing apart of the smallest 16th-note fragment of the opening theme, in the manner of a dog worrying a bone. Under cover of this fierce concentration of motivic development, the recapitulation slips back in so inobtrusively that it is underway before you notice it, like a person entering a room while others are busy talking. Its climax comes when a rhythmic food-fight breaks out in a patch of syncopated- 2-against-3-against-4 that leads to a defiant conclusion.

The Andante moderato second movement overflows with lyricism, but not unalloyed. There is plenty of drama in store for the listener in the middle section. It opens with a thinly scored violin melody that is gradually gathering a warmer harmonic coating when out of the blue the first violin challenges the cello to a duel—in musical terms, a canon—while the other instruments fret like a Greek chorus, tremolando, in the background. This little Schubertian masquerade once vented (Schubert loved to put emotionally intense minor-mode dramas as contrasting middle sections of his lyrical movements) the parties dust themselves off and walk hand-in-hand back into lyrical territory to finish the work they began.

Brahms’ third movements are normally devoted to the dance, and here in a “Quasi menuetto” Brahms invites into his ballroom the bewigged silk-stockings that danced the previous century to its end. The ghostly pallour of their powdered cheeks is audible in the high string sound of the opening, and the dead past from which they emerged reinforced by the drone in the cello. The ceremonial mood is interrupted time and again, however, by the more agile steps of a fleet game of musical ‘catch’ executed brilliantly in a dazzling series of canons between the instruments, with first violin and viola taking a leading role. It is all the old courtiers can do to straighten their wigs and prance the movement to a dignified end.

The spirit of the dance pervades the final movement, as well, but that doesn’t mean that marking time is going to be easy in this rondo-like alternation of spirited and more lyrical segments. The opening dance theme, with its distinctly Hungarian freedom of accent placement, sets simultaneous duple and triple meters in competition for the allegiance of your tapping foot. Then to add to the crazed merriment, a few passages in strict imitation between the voices are thrown in for good measure. This is one of Brahms’ most energetic and ingenious finales, and leaves the listener feeling like a cat tossed in a dryer on the ‘fluff’ cycle.

Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38

It is no doubt significant that Brahms chose the cello for his first published duo-sonata, given the deep bass resonance he preferred and eagerly wrote into much of his instrumental music. Few composers, for example, would have dared fill in the minor third of a D minor chord planted at the very bottom of the keyboard, but dear old Johannes did just that at the end of the Scherzo from his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83. One feels that much of the authority that emanates from his music derives from the gravity of its timbre and the sonic impact that low notes have on the human psyche.

His Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor begins, not surprisingly, on the low E of the cello, supported by plump off-beat chords not dissimilar to those that accompany the opening theme of the Fourth Symphony, also in E minor. Moving up to the middle register, Brahms soon lets us hear the searing mellowness of the cello’s baritone register to complete his statement of the opening theme. An amiable transition with flowing triplets in the piano leads us to a second theme, more steely and determined, but just as darkly wrapped around the minor triad as the first. Contrast and relief come at the close of the exposition in a consoling lullaby of the kind that virtually defines Brahms in the popular imagination.

These three themes are worked through in turn in the development, for much of their course dogging each other’s footsteps barely a beat apart. When the opening theme returns in the cello, it finds a more pensively reflective partner in the piano, enlacing it thoughtfully with descending patterns of figuration. The second theme is unrepentant but the lullaby ensures an ending more marked by repose than rancour.

There is no slow lyrical movement in this sonata, perhaps because of the weighty matters that ballast the outer movements. Instead Brahms moves straight to the dance movement, the Allegretto quasi Menuetto. Here more than in the preceding A minor string quartet the minuet is not just ‘quasi’ but eminently danceable, although a certain antique flavor is maintained in the Phrygian cadences of the melody. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrast with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio that provides ‘period relief’ in its middle section.

The last movement is a bravura display of instrumental and compositional skill. The idea of writing a fugal last movement may have come to Brahms from the example of Beethoven’s last cello sonata, if not from similar finales in the late piano sonatas and string quartets. The texture is not unremittingly fugal however. It begins the movement in fugal style but then its thematic material is parceled out for sonata-type development in the ensuing sections, returning frequently to the fugal idiom to establish its command over the structure of the movement. Inescapable is the mood of continuous striving, struggle and defiance, only rarely relieved by calmer moments in the major mode. The dramatic octave leaps that open the movement in the piano part are developed into even greater dramatic gestures between the top and bottom of the cello register. The piano writing, rife with double thirds and trills at the top of right-hand octaves, presages the gargantuan pianistic challenges of the Piano Concerto No. 2.


Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111

At the age of 57, Brahms sent this quintet in to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, with a note announcing his retirement. “It really is time to stop”, he wrote. This was of course before he had heard Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who inspired him to come out of retirement to write works for the clarinet.

It is obvious, though, that with this G major string quintet he planned to go out with an impressive work, and truly impressive it is. The sound, for one thing, is luminous and luxuriantly full. Having five string players at his disposal, Brahms had no compunction about enlarging the sound even further by the frequent use of double stops. The scoring used by Mozart for his string quintets—with an extra viola instead of the extra cello favoured by Schubert—allowed for a richer mid-range, which he exploits to the fullest. The first movement’s second theme, for example, is introduced by a brace of violas.

Composed while Brahms was vacationing in the Austrian Alps in the summer of 1890, the work sends fresh mountain air up the nostrils of its listeners and evokes the vast panoramic landscapes that its composer must have seen when composing it. Nothing offers better evidence of this than its astonishing opening, with the cello holding forth against the rest of the ensemble’s quavering soundscape to spin out a fresh-as-spring melody of wide harmonic range and swaggering rhythmic vigour. In the first of the many dance forms that interlard this work, its second subject is a double dollop of Viennese waltz played by the violas. The development is strikingly symphonic in scope, with numerous contrasting sections to occupy the ear until the opening theme returns, in the first violin for the recapitulation, which takes the previous thematic material to new heights of expressiveness in the high register.

The second movement is monothematic, without contrasting sections. Its simple melody, embellished by a turn, is presented in four variations that range from the serene to the passionately declamatory. This movement is marked with unusual harmonic interest and is distinctly darker in tone colour than the first because of the prominent role given to the viola, which presents the theme at the opening and introduces its final statement with a small cadenza near the end.

The third movement is one of those wistful pieces, paced neither slow nor fast, that capture something unique in the Brahmsian musical aesthetic: that restrained middle ground between restrained sentiment and outright sentimentality best described as intermezzo. An utterly charming Trio in the major mode features dueling pairs of violins and violas that return for a final bow at the end of the movement.

The finale is a romping sonata-rondo richly imbued with dance rhythms. The principal theme, based on a mischievous snippet of four 16th notes, is given a jaunty accompaniment with many an off-beat accent. The second theme, in triplets, has its own type of swagger strongly suggestive of country folk dance. Neither, however, can match the high-kicking élan of the coda, reminiscent of the Hungarian czárdás.

 

CONCERT #3

Johannes Brahms
String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67

After writing two string quartets in the minor mode, published as his Op. 51, Brahms was in the mood for a bit of good old- fashioned fun. His third and final string quartet, Op. 67, is notable for its playful tone and a kind of bouyant, healthy exuberance that was fairly thin on the ground in the Romantic age, but common enough in music of the previous century.

Inspiration from the Classical period is most evident in the outer movements: not just in the use of square cut phrases, cleanly defined formal sections, and the occasional cadential trill, but also in the sheer confidence with which contrasting material is juxtaposed, reminiscent of the winking, good-natured merry- making of Haydn at his most mischievous, Mozart at his most childlike. Indeed the very key chosen for this work, B flat, situates it among other ‘classical homage’ works such as the St. Antony and Handel Variations in the same key. Indeed, the details which it shares with Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet K. 458, also in B flat, are striking.

Chief amongst these is the so-called ‘horn-call’ opening of the first movement The off-beat accents in this triadic theme are the first clue that rhythmic and metrical tricks await the listener in abundance, for no sooner has a toe-tapping 6/8 pattern been set up than a three-to-the-bar cross-rhythm hijacks the proceedings. After a transition section that makes no secret of its desire to reach the dominant, the second theme area turns out to be configured in alternating passages of 2/4 and 6/8— sometimes even with different time signatures on different staves simultaneously. The two opposing meters decide to “agree to disagree” in the development section, the first half of which unfolds in groups of triplet 8ths in 6/8, the latter half mainly in groups of duple 16ths in 2/4. This leaves it to the recapitulation to sort things out, where of course a merry mix-up ensues, with everyone talking at the dinner table at once.

The middle two movements are much less quirky and chaotic. The lyrical second movement, Andante, is an outpouring of lyric emotion much in the intimate, quietly yearning style of Mendelssohn, with balanced phrases, lovingly supportive stepwise motion in the bass, and an extraordinarily wide melodic range. Deep heroic thoughts however, lurk beneath the surface and they come out in a dramatic spate of double-dotted defiance that for a time seems to be channeling a Lullyan French overture. After a short period of self-doubt and a bit of brow-knitting all round, the lyric mood returns to bring back the cozy atmosphere and chumminess of the opening section.

Despite its Italian marking, the third movement is not the kind of Agitato that would have you reaching for your Pepto-Bysmol. While definitely dance-like in rhythm, it seems to wobble more than lilt. And there is something quite peculiar about its (literally) off-beat character: downbeats are often missing, the phrases run out of breath after a single bar, and the accompaniment seems almost in competition with the searching, groping melody above it. The viola gets its place in the sun in this movement, leading melodically for almost its entire duration. Even the Trio—which

starts off as a real trio, without the viola—invites it back in to pursue its melodic agenda, as before. This elegantly ungainly intermezzo is Brahms at his most characterful.

Brahms returns to classical form in his theme-and-variations finale, but with a number of sly little quirky surprises craftily hidden beneath its polished surface texture. The first is the odd little modulation to D major at the cadence of its very first phrase, prompting a slightly amusing harmonic lurch in the second phrase to get us back home to B flat in time for its cadence. And as this is a series of variations based on the harmonies of the original theme, the little joke keeps getting funnier and funnier as the variations progress.

The second surprise is when the horn-call theme from the first movement walks onto the stage unannounced. As the ending of this movement builds in theatrical excitement, there is much interplay between the themes of the first and last movements until, like the finale in a comic opera, all rivalries, rhythmic and otherwise, are quelled in an ensemble chorus of jubilation from all concerned.

Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 108

Brahms’ last sonata for violin and piano creates a great variety of musical characterizations within the relatively short span of its four movements.

As it opens, we seem to catch the violin in mid-thought, in a musing, introspective frame of mind, giving forth a wistful theme not entirely devoid of gypsy turns of phrase. The piano ruminates deep below in syncopated sympathy with its companion, soon grabbing the theme to project it out with heroic strength. The second theme, announced by the piano before being taken up by the violin, is a lyrical tidbit of small melodic range with an insistent dotted rhythm. Where the weighty mystery lies in this movement is in the development section, in which the piano intones a low A, dominant of the key, for almost 50 bars beneath relatively serene motivic deliberations from the violin above. All seems to be well during the recapitulation, but no sooner is the first subject reviewed when another development section breaks out that is as harmonically volatile as the previous development was stiflingly stable. Its passion spent, the recapitulation continues, but with the piano plumbing another pedal point, a low D, at the bottom of the keyboard.

Balancing the dark mysterious mood of the first movement is the Adagio, an openly lyrical aria for the violin, accompanied throughout by the piano. Noteworthy in its unvaried repetitions throughout this movement are the deeply affecting falling intervals and passionately expressive outbursts in double thirds, reminiscent of the gypsy manner.

Brahms’ third movements are often hard to pin down as their precise character. This third movement is obviously more scherzo than intermezzo, more subversive than sentimental. And yet it remains enigmatic because of its almost gypsy volatility of mood and mode. It opens with playful cat-and-mouse exchanges of echoing thirds in the minor mode, but soon moves into much more violent and passionate expressive terrain. Its playful exchange is more serious the second time around, but then drifts into fairy land, only to turn on a dime from major to minor and return to its opening material, as if nothing had happened in between.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the last movement, Presto agitato. While dance-like elements are present in its principal theme in 6/8, the thick scoring of the piano part prevents any spirit of lightness from taking hold in this turbulent and dead serious sonata-rondo. The dark clouds do break momentarily, however, for the simple chorale-like second subject, announced first in the piano. A range of textures, from throbbing syncopations to eerie unisons, ensures variety in the continuous development of ideas pulsing through this movement that lends massive end- weighting to the sonata as a whole.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34

Great art is not a coincidence. It’s a series of them.

Suppose you had a stray thought. Suppose that, while taking out the recycling, your life coach’s late cat, Ernestine, unexpectedly pops into your head. And suppose that, when it does, you wonder why you have never met an actual person with that name. Then later that same day—stay with me here—you struggle to pick up your chin when you notice that the cashier taking your money in the checkout line is wearing a nametag that says “Ernestine”. Even more wondrous to report, you are watching television that evening and the nostalgia channel is showing reruns of Laugh-In from the 1960s, with Lilly Tomlin in the role of … Ernestine, the phone operator. All in the same day.

Such eerie paranormal experiences are rare, but when they happen, you begin to think that the Gods of Chance are playing with your head. But Brahms lovers have these experiences all the time. A theme you have just heard can show up in places you least expect it further on, or right away: as a passing motivic flourish, or a fast-moving accompaniment figure. A twirling pattern of notes that you hardly paid attention to can later morph into that glorious melody you end up humming to yourself while waiting for your yoga class to begin. Brahms’ thematic material, once stated, simply refuses to go away, as the Quintet in F minor amply demonstrates.

And yes, he is playing with your head.

The first movement begins with a bare-bones unison statement of a theme in 8th notes rocking back and forth around a number of common chords. Then the piano picks up the pace and tries to move on to other material with a snappy round of 16ths. But wait! Those 16ths rushing by are the same melody as you have just heard, reduced in note value but reproducing the melodic outline of the previous theme perfectly. Talk about economy.

An interval as simple as a semitone—and there is a prominent one at the end of the restated main theme—can keep the entire transition to the second theme transfixed with its hypnotic power, in both the melody and accompaniment voices simultaneously.

And the second theme, when it comes, seems to have inherited quite a few hand-me-downs from its elder brother, the first theme: its minor mode, the arpeggiated chord tones, the same melodic turns at key points in its contour.

With these three elements—the first and second themes, plus the semitone motive—you can essentially “parse” the shape and formal structure of the Quintet’s first movement sonata form and its various textures. Of course, some prefer to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious melodies and invigorating rhythmic drive of the piece. To each his own.

After the turbulent and densely argued first movement comes a slow movement, in A-B-A form, of audacious simplicity and seductive Viennese charm. On the surface, it appears to have little to recommend it. The phrases are virtually all symmetrical four-bar units. The piano plays in 3rds or 6ths for most of its duration. And the same elements keep recurring over and over again: a little “Scotch snap” at the beginning of the bar, and a pattern of octave leaps in the accompaniment. And yet we are gradually drawn in by how accompaniment patterns seem to find themselves repeated in the melody itself, and the melody’s Scotch snap appears echoed in the accompaniment. Not to mention the sheer luxuriance of the enveloping string sound that, by the end, coats the ear sonically in buckets of Viennese whipped cream. This movement is positively fattening.

The scherzo that follows, allows the ear to work off all that weight in a movement that is ear-catching not only for its propulsive rhythmic drive but also because of the way that it springs from a very small number of musical elements. It begins with a suspenseful build-up of syncopations in the strings to which the piano adds a busy little circling pattern of 16ths, very much like a pesky fly circling round that you just can’t manage to swat. Relief comes quickly, however, when a fresh new melody, a stirring anthem of hope and bright cheer, arrives to sweep away all trace of the previous material. But is it really new? No. It ́s the same ‘pesky fly’ motive, in larger note values, and in the major mode. And when this busy little motive returns to be treated in fugato, its ‘contrasting’ countersubject is really just an augmented version of itself at double note values. The interlaced right- and left-hand martellato piano writing? Simple. It ́s a hocket created from the repeated notes at the beginning of the motive. Even the Trio theme in the middle section is traced from the rhythm of the anthem. And yet, despite how this whole movement seems to be constructed like a house of mirrors at the circus, it inevitably ends up being the most memorable.

After such a movement as the Scherzo, the risk of anticlimax is real. So Brahms begins his last movement with a torturously slow introduction. The main theme, when it arrives, is an uncomplicated affair, a decorated rising minor scale and little more. But this being Brahms, of course, it is hardly finished when it gets immediately repeated in inversion, coming down the scale as simply as it went up. The sections of this massive finale all derive in some way from the slow introduction, the principal theme, or any number of variations of these two. The massive coda with which the work ends is a virtual movement in itself, and settles the anticlimax question once and for all.

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

PROGRAM NOTES: MURRAY PERAHIA


Johann Sebastian Bach:
 French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815

Bach composed suites for keyboard, for various solo chamber instruments, and for full orchestra, each comprising a varied and aesthetically balanced collection of dance movements written in the fashionable style of his day. The harmonic task given to each two-section dance is a simple one: to move, in the first part, from the home key to the key of the dominant, five notes up, and then in the second part, to return back to the home key, with each section played twice.

The moderately paced Allemande that opens this suite exudes an air of quiet assurance and harmonious calm. It is the most “conversational” of the movements in the suite, its walking bass supporting two upper voices that circle and twine round each other like two old friends who complete each other’s sentences. Beginning unusually low, the first half moves towards the middle register, while the second half begins correspondingly high and descends to the mid- zone of the keyboard.

In the Courante we move to triple metre, and a livelier pace. The single upper line moves in a continuous stream of running triplets while its jogging partner in the bass skips in time to it below. The stately Sarabande that follows restores a mood of ceremonial propriety as the hands take turns echoing the opening motive, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar.

The galanteries, or optional dances that precede the finale, are usually performed in the following order. First is the Gavotte, which in contrast with the smooth running figures of the preceding dance, moves by a succession of little leaps, imitated between the hands. A much longer second Gavotte follows, with an unusually wide variety in phrase lengths, for a dance movement.

The Air features a continuous texture of running notes, with a lively imitative dialogue between the voices in the second half. The Minuet moves in bite-sized two-note groups echoed between the hands, which gives it a sense of courtly daintiness not shared by its rougher country cousin, the Gavotte.

The real toe-tapper comes at the end of the suite in the Gigue, the most emphatic and rousing of all the dance movements. Displaying more leaps than a skateboarder’s trick set, this rollicking finale follows traditional Baroque practice of inverting the opening motive at the start of its second half.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57

The sonata known to history as the Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s most emotionally charged and “edgy”

compositions, a work that – in its outer movements especially – pushed piano music to new extremes in dynamics, in technical difficulty, and in sheer expressive power.

Beethoven’s choice of key, F minor, allowed him to write for the full range of the piano of his day, from its lowest note (F1 in the bass) to its highest (C7 in the treble), both of which appear prominently in the score. Extreme as well is the economy of musical material used. As he was to do in the great C minor Symphony to follow, Beethoven constructs the entire compositional edifice of his first movement out of a small number of primal musical materials, all presented on the first page.

The sonata opens in a conspiratorial whisper, the furtive dotted rhythm of a rising F minor arpeggio finishing in a trill in the upper register, more eerie than decorative. The entire phrase is then repeated a semitone higher, in G-flat, introducing the Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd degree of the scale) that will haunt the entire movement. Completing the motivic line-up is a short knock-on-the-door motive in the bass, ominously tut-tutting this Neapolitan ascent with a corresponding semitone descent, and suspensefully setting up the explosion of echoing cannon- fire chords that begin the movement’s emotional journey in earnest. After a transition section buzzing with repeated notes, a calmer second theme appears in the major mode, but its dotted rhythm and restless triadic roaming show it to be merely the flipside of the first theme, as if Beethoven were playing bad-cop/good-cop with the same thematic material.

There are no formal repeats in this sonata-form drama: the emotional intensity is kept at fever pitch throughout the exploratory modulations of the development and the triumphant recapitulation in the major mode. But this is not the end. As in the C minor Symphony, this first movement is massively end-weighted in an extended coda that reaches its emotional climax in a virtuoso cadenza spluttering with rage and apocalyptic fury. Its pianississimo ending, fluttering with menace into the distance, merely recedes from, rather than resolves, the musical torment burning at its core.

No greater contrast could be imagined than that presented by the second movement, an emotionally stable, harmonically rock-solid set of variations, each with its own repeat. Far from ranging over the full expanse of the keyboard, its solemn melody spans barely a handful of notes in the mid- range. Melodic interest is thus concentrated in the bass line, but as the variations progress, it gradually filters upward into increasingly elaborate patterns of decorative detail in the upper register. Then just as the movement reaches its cadential close, a harmonically destabilizing diminished 7th chord mysteriously steps in to replace the final tonic harmony. Strident repetitions of this chord in a higher register trumpet the breaking news that the last movement is at the gates, set to begin – without a pause.

In this last movement the feverish restlessness of the first movement returns in a moto perpetuo of continuous sixteenth notes, so hell-bent on its mission that its “second theme” is barely distinguishable from the first, merely moved up into the key of the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher. As in the first movement, frequent flecks of Neapolitan harmony add a dark glint to the harmonic mix in both key areas.

Where new motives and punchy countermelodies do emerge is in the development section, which is perhaps why it, along with the recapitulation, is given a repeat. The work ends with a presto coda described as a “demonic czárdás,” stomping, skipping and finally racing to its finish in a whirlwind of F-minor broken chords cascading from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.

Robert Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2

Two artistic influences flutter over Robert Schumann’s second published work, an interconnected cycle of twelve dance pieces appearing in 1831 under the title Papillons (i.e., “Butterflies”). The first is the piano music of Schubert, especially his dance pieces and variations, which intrigued the young composer with their “psychologically unusual connection of ideas.” The second is the work of German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, with whose fanciful writings Schumann became utterly besotted in his student years in Leipzig while studying law.

It is, in fact, the scene of the masked ball at the end of Richter’s novel Flegeljahre (1804) that provides the dramatic “setting” for the cycle, a scene in which two brothers, in love with the same woman, vie to win her heart amid the gaiety and varied musical offerings of a social evening with dance orchestra.

These brief pieces, most of which are waltzes, manage to fit a maximum of drama within their diminutive formal frames. Eyebrow-raising is the occasional use of the minor mode in this collection of generally festive dances, as well as the frequent presence of two wildly contrasting moods within the same piece – features which hint at the testosterone- soaked rivalry between the two brothers. Noteworthy as well is how the personalities of the rival brothers in Richter’s novel – one dreamy-eyed and introspective, the other passionate and action-oriented – parallel the two alter-egos that Schumann was to develop for his own split musical personality: Eusebius and Florestan.

Most clearly narrative is the final dance in the set, which opens with a quotation of the Grossvatertanz (Grandfather’s Dance), a centuries-old tune traditionally played at the end of wedding celebrations. Against the backdrop of this tune, Schumann recalls the opening waltz as the clock tolls repeatedly to signal the end of the ball. The final cadence features a dominant 7th chord that is peeled up from the bottom to leave only its top note sounding, before the final chord brings a quiet close to this kaleidoscopic evening of musical nostalgia.

Frédéric Chopin:
 Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1

The nocturne, popularized in the early 19th century by the Irish pianist John Field, became in the hands of Chopin one of the most characteristic genres of the Romantic era. Typically featuring an Italianate cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment of widely spaced chords in the left hand, it sought to evoke a dreamy nighttime mood through its slow harmonic rhythm and the atmospheric use of pedaling effects over recurring drone tones.

This nocturne, one of the last published by Chopin during his lifetime, seeks the same goal, but by different means. More contrapuntal in texture, it features a harmonically active bass supporting a vocal line that unfolds in an even flow of eighth notes, with overlapping phrases that avoid clear and unambiguous cadences in pursuit of the Romantic ideal of the “endless melody”.

Its middle section grandly widens the range between melody and bass while venturing further afield in its modulations before returning to the opening material, thrillingly ornamented with chains of trills and melodic filigree. A longish coda features orientally-tinged scalar elaborations ranging widely over the keyboard which lend end-weighting to the work as a whole.

Frédéric Chopin: Étude in A flat, Op 25, No. 1 Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 Étude in C# minor, Op 10, No. 4

The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), along with the Trois nouvelles études which he contributed to the Méthode des méthodes (1839-40) of Fétis and Moschelès stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play.”

It is easy to imagine why the Étude in A flat, Op. 25, No. 1 is known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment (all the rest). Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.

The Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 is the “ugly duckling” amongst the Études. To each attack in the right hand is

attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.

The Étude in C# minor, Op. 10, No. 4, a fiery and aggressive moto perpetuo of small running figures that change hands every few bars, is one of the longest of the Études. Bristling with chromatic inflections and peppered with sforzando accents, it makes the arrival of a stable key centre a major event on the last page of the score.

Frédéric Chopin:
 Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31

The scherzi of Chopin have little of the tripping, skipping, good-humoured jesting of the genre created by Beethoven, and only the last of them, the Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, displays any of the mischievous scamper and effervescent buoyancy of the models offered by Chopin’s contemporary, Mendelssohn. Rather, these are big-boned works, projecting pianistic power and lyrical intensity with a directness and confidence very much at odds with the popular image of Chopin as the delicate performer of perfumed salon pieces.

What links them, perhaps, to their forebears is not only a broadly conceived ternary (A-B-A) form, but also a certain mercurial volatility of mood and a desire to entertain wildly contrasting emotions not just between sections, but within them.

The Scherzo in B flat minor, composed in 1837, is a perfect example. It opens with a dramatic exchange between a whimpering triplet figure and an explosive salvo of raw piano resonance, only to be followed by an ecstatic exclamation arriving from the extreme ends of the keyboard, which then in turn morphs into a yearning, long-lined lyrical melody singing out over a sonorously rippling accompaniment in the left hand.

The middle section begins in a mood of quiet elegy, but gradually is persuaded to emerge from its introspection into a lilting three-step waltz, accompanied at every turn by an attentive little duplet-triplet figure in the alto. It is this coy little waltz tune that will build up in urgency and sonority sufficient to motivate the return of the dramatic musical gestures that opened the work. A coda pulls and tears at this material to lead it to a triumphant conclusion in D flat major, the key to which it had always been drawn throughout its course.

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

IT TAKES A (GLOBAL) VILLAGE

Visiting New York is like a shot of adrenalin! I spent half my adult life in that city. Half of that was spent working at Columbia Artists when it was at it’s peak, learning the business of managing artists and producing international concert tours for orchestras, dance companies and chamber groups from around the world.

When I go back, I find nearly every block of that city imbued with memories and reflections of some of the most defining experiences and people in my life.

The reason for my trip was to give a seminar on social media at this year’s Chamber Music America conference. I presented my “Top Ten Tips For Mastering The Twitterverse” to agents, artists and presenters I’ve long known and admired: Edna Landau, co-founder of IMG Artists and Jamie Broumas, Director of the Kennedy Center, among others. It was fun and I think it went over well.

I also took advantage of the trip to arrange meetings with the Artistic staff at Carnegie Hall and the 92nd Street Y; the Marketing and Brand director for Lincoln Center; and a fundraising expert for Cambridge University in America.

And many old friends. Mentors Doug Sheldon at Columbia Artists and Charlie Hamlen, co-founder of IMG and founder of Classical Action Against AIDS, now VP of Artistic Planning for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Shirley Kirshbaum, Susan Catalano and Jason Belz from Kirshbaum-Demler Artists; Jenny Palmer from IMG Artists; Stephen Jacobson, my counterpart at Shriver Hall in Baltimore; Derrick Inouye, resident conductor at the Met Opera and James Levine’s right hand both there and at the Verbier Festival; David Lamarche, Music Director of American Ballet Theater; and Nikki Chooi, a brilliant young violinist from Victoria with a burgeoning career.

It reconfirmed for me the thousands of people around the world so crucial to the ecosystem that produces the great artists that appear on our series every year: the teachers, music schools and great artists that mentor young talent; the foundations, competitions and festivals that give them a leg up; the agents that find and help develop careers; the publicists that help promote them; the critics that maintain standards and push artists to grow; the record labels, web developers, instrument makers and sponsors that are all necessary to that elusive magical alchemy that leads to a career.

And most important of all, people like Leila Getz, our Artistic Director, whose international connections, knowledge, artistic integrity and willingness to take risks are the key to the success of our series.

Ultimately the trip reminded me again of how much this business, like much of life itself, is based on relationships and reputation. It is still an industry where one’s word is literally one’s bond.

I’m overjoyed to get back home to my Tom, and to our great team at the Vancouver Recital Society. But it’s been quite a moving, emotional visit – so many joy-filled hellos followed too soon with emotional goodbyes.

And now it’s time for the last goodbye of all, to New York itself. They’ve just called my flight back to Vancouver!

Sean Bickerton
Executive Director

 

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