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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

 

PROGRAM NOTES: AVI AVITAL


Avi Avital: Kedma

“To open the concert, I have chosen to perform a composition- improvisation of my own. Unlike a composer’s relationship to an instrument and to a musical form, the performer’s relationship to his instrument, as in this case, is expressed in a frequent dialogue to “get to know” each other better. This improvisation, in which I have modified the mandolin’s traditional tuning, is sub-divided into four parts; each part concentrating on a unique character and on one of the mandolin’s four pairs of strings. These four parts are then followed by a finale that reminds us of a kind of folk dance, where all of the strings and characters participate and reunite.

I have called the piece Kedma, which in Hebrew means “eastwards” or “towards the orient”. “Kedma” also contains the Hebrew root of other words with very different, apparently contradicting, meanings: kodem – before and kadimah – forward; kedem – antiquity and kidma – modernization, avant-garde.”  – Avi Avital

Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004

The practice of composing an ordered collection of rhythmically contrasting dance pieces in the same key for a single instrument arose in the 17th century. Published under the name of suite or partita, the genre normally comprised an allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, to which Bach added a mighty chaconne to crown his Partita in D minor for violin solo, composed in 1720.

The problem of creating full harmonies on a single-line instrument is addressed by Bach in his use of the style brisé (“broken style”) typical of 17th-century French lute music: chordal progressions are “broken up” into irregular patterns of arpeggios and runs to create a continuous flow of sound for the performer to shape expressively in performance. The opening allemande is a classic example of this lute-inspired texture and its (re-)transcription for a plucked, stringed instrument such as the mandolin is therefore especially apt.

The courante lives up to its name in a series of flowing runs in triple metre while the deliberate and serious sarabande, with its grave emphasis on the 2nd beat of the bar, sets the stage for the jaunty and dancelike gigue (“jig”) that follows.

The chaconne which concludes the suite is one of the most celebrated works in the classical canon, having inspired transcriptions and adaptations by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Busoni and Segovia, among others. Exceeding in duration the length of all the preceding pieces combined, it is conceived in three parts, with a middle section in the major mode. It presents an evolving set of ever-more probing variations on the repeating bass line D-C#-D-Bb-G-A-D given in the first four measures. The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier.

Yasuo Kuwahara: Improvised Poem

The Japanese mandolinist Yasuo Kuwahara was a prolific composer for his chosen instrument who made important contributions to both the solo and ensemble repertoires of the mandolin. He enjoyed an international reputation for compositions ranging from lush romantic scores such as Song of Japanese Autumn (a favourite with mandolin ensembles both in Europe and the United States) to works in a more challenging modern idiom for solo mandolin.

Improvised Poem falls into the latter category. Its exploitation of the full sonic potential of the instrument in frenetic chordal tremolos and abrupt cross-accents, only occasionally interrupted by episodes of reflective calm, put it on even terrain with the boldest flights of fancy of the flamenco guitar.

Maurice Ravel: Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera

Maurice Ravel was born in a small Basque village near the border with Spain and although thoroughly Parisian in his artistic sensibilities was constantly drawn to the rhythms and melodies of Spanish music.

In this vocal exercise, composed in 1907, we hear both Paris and Madrid. The pastel chord streams and scintillating flecks of harmony in the piano exemplify French impressionism at its height, while the dark melodic contours and biting ornamental inflections of the solo line evoke exotic locales of the Iberian peninsula. Pulsing beneath both is the slow, suave and lilting rhythm of the habañera.

Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

de Falla’s most popular vocal work was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.

The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), gives a none-too-veiled warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair. The Seguidilla murciana is an intenseargument of insistent taunts and bitter banter.

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

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

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

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

Transylvania held a particular fascination for Bartók, who visited the region several times in the years preceding the First World War to collect folk tunes from the local peasant population. Its very remoteness and primitive way of life, he believed, offered the opportunity to discover the authentic roots of an important indigenous musical tradition, so different from what passed for “gypsy” music in the salons of Budapest and Vienna.

His settings of these Romanian folk tunes were composed in 1915 for piano solo, and subsequently published in other instrumental arrangements in the following years. His modest but harmonically pungent accompaniments frame these haunting melodies in simple rhythmic garb while evoking the sonorities of the original village instruments on which they were played: the fiddle, shepherd’s flute and bagpipes.

The simple titles of the dances themselves give an idea of the kinds of choreography they were meant accompany. The opening Jocul cu bâtă, which Bartók originally heard played by two gypsy violinists, involves dancing with a stick or staff, while the following Brâul uses a sash or waistband as its visual prop.

A dark mood broods over the third piece, Pe loc, presumably danced “in one spot.” The recurring interval of an augmented second suggests its origin in regions south of Romania, perhaps the Middle East. The same interval pervades the melodic inflections of Buciumeana, a gypsy violin piece.

A more boisterous mood is evoked in the last two dances. Poarga Românească (Romanian polka) alternates 2⁄4 and 3⁄4 metres while the aptly named Fast Dance (Mărunțel) picks up the pace with a rhythmically intense accompaniment supporting the melodic twists and turns of the gypsy violin above.

Program notes by Donald Gislason, 2013.

NELSON MANDELA’S CLASSICAL PIANIST

 

The world is a poorer place for Nelson Mandela’s passing. Over the last few days I have read many articles about him and about my native South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. One item, in particular, surprised me. The piece below, by British journalist Norman Lebrecht, was posted on his daily blog ‘Slipped Disc’:

“One of Mandela’s close friends in the 1950s was the Welsh-born pianist Harold Rubens, who moved to South Africa when his prodigy career dried up (he is pictured below as a boy, playing for George Bernard Shaw).

A brother of the novelist Bernice Rubens and the hero of her novel, Madame Sousatzka, Harold became active in anti-apartheid activities. His home became a secret meeting place for Mandela and other leaders of the resistance. When confidential plans were discussed, Harold would sit at the piano and hammer out ffffs so the conversation could not be picked up on secret service microphones.

Albie Sachs recalled: ‘We were meeting in the underground in their cottage in Newlands. We would hear him practising the fourth Beethoven piano concerto, going over it and over and over again while we were doing our secret planning in the room next door. Happily the music was very loud, and if there were any bugs, all the security police would hear would be Beethoven and not us planning resistance to apartheid. Beethoven would have been happy. Such complex and mixed-up feelings in this simple building.’

Harold refused to play before segregated audiences. He returned to London in 1963, taught at the Royal Academy and died in 2010.  He’ll be playing G-major for Nelson right now, bless them.”

Harold Rubens

Harold Rubens performing for George Bernard Shaw

Harold Rubens was a professor of piano at the College of Music in Cape Town, which was the music faculty of the University of Cape Town. I was a pupil of his from 1957 to 1961. To describe Harold Rubens as a colourful individual would be an understatement! He was very short and had a complicated personality. Actually, he terrified the living daylights out of me. I would stand outside the door to his studio with butterflies in my stomach!

We all knew that Professor Rubens was involved in anti-apartheid activities, but most of the people I knew were. I don’t think that any of us realized that he was engaged in the activity that Mr. Lebrecht has written about. I called two of my good friends who were at the college with me over the weekend and neither of them knew about this. And to see Harold Rubens playing for George Bernard Shaw makes me feel ancient!!

Leila Getz

 

Program notes: Kuok-Wai Lio

Leoš Janáček: In the Mists

Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music. Equally folk-like is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism, à la Debussy, but an impressionism as heard through Czech ears.

The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetitions of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato.  A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of its melancholy opening theme.

The varied repetition of a four-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.

The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure, and then ends exactly as it begins.

The fourth movement, Presto, with its many changes of meter, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.


Franz Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142)

Schubert wrote these four works, along with another group of four impromptus (D. 899/Op. 90) in 1827. Only two were published in the short period Schubert still had to live. The four that finally appeared as Op. 142 were published in 1838 by Diabelli, who entitled these pieces “Impromptus.” 

The word “impromptu” belies the true construction of the works, for they are not improvisations at all, nor are they spur of the moment conceptions. Rather, the word is intended to evoke the idea that the music originated in a casual manner, and that it was born of poetic fantasy in the composer’s mind. Each of the impromptus explores a particular mood of tonal poetry, that mood being defined at the outset.

The somewhat elusive structure of the first impromptu combines elements of sonata and rondo. There is a wide range of moods, from the sombre melancholy of the opening to some highly excitable passages later on. Schubert’s characteristic fluctuations between major and minor tonalities are also much in evidence.

The second is designed as a simple Minuet and Trio. The music strongly recalls the mood, tempo, melodic outline and harmonic progressions of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26 in the same key (A flat major). 

The third impromptu is a theme with five variations. Schubert borrowed this wonderfully idyllic, ingratiating theme from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern, where it introduces the scene of Rosamunde tending her flocks in Act IV. He also used a close variant of it in his String Quartet in A minor (D. 804).

The final impromptu, with its slightly ironic air, delights principally through rhythmic playfulness, a dancelike spirit and brilliant passage work. Towards the end, a note of veiled mystery creeps in, but this resolves into a furious rush to the finish, culminating in a swoop down to the lowest note (F) on Schubert’s piano.


Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

The Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) dates from 1837, when the composer was 27. In its first edition, it was published with the title “Florestan and Eusebius,” referring to the two fictional characters, members of the “League of David”, who are actually only opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego, the former representing his extroverted, exuberant side, the latter his quiet, meditative side. The “Davidsbund” itself, purely a product of Schumannn’s fertile romantic imagination but fashioned after the Old Testament figure, represented the proud, musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. All but number 16 bear an initial at the end, indicating whether it was inspired by Florestan, Eusebius or the two together.

The spirit of the dance infuses the entire eighteen-piece set in one way or another. Mazurka, waltz, polka, tarantella, Ländler, and other dance forms are either obviously or subtly transformed in these mood pieces, which are by turns joyous, eccentric, reflective, lively, agitated, and whimsical. The opening gesture, which is used as a sort of motto throughout, comes from a mazurka by Schumann’s fiancée, Clara Wieck. 

The pianist-scholar Charles Rosen offers this insightful observation about the music: “The meaning of the Davidsbündlertänze cannot be put into words, of course, but it comes closer to words than any other piece of music that I know. With its combination of memory and nostalgia, humour and willfulness… the work seems to hint at something hidden within it, intended for us to guess at and not to find. It is, in any case, the reticent Eusebius that has the last word.”

Program notes by Donald Gislason & Robert Markow, 2013.

Program notes: Benedetto Lupo


Johannes Brahms: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117

The three Intermezzi Op.117 are, together with the piano pieces of Op. 116, 118 and 119, collectively the last Brahms wrote for solo piano, and are among his very last compositions. Only three more opus numbers followed, and they involved the keyboard as well. In a way, it was entirely fitting that Brahms drew the curtains on his career with music for this instrument. He had been an outstanding pianist himself since his teens. His earliest surviving work published under his own name – the Scherzo in E-flat Minor, Op. 4, written when he was eighteen – was a piano piece, and Brahms continued to write for the instrument throughout his life.

Op. 117 dates from 1892. The first is prefaced by words from a Scottish lullaby, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” which begins: “Baloo, my babe, lie still and sleep; It grieves me sore to see thee weep.” Brahms puts the melody in an inner voice surrounded by a gently rocking accompaniment. The central section (all three Intermezzi are in three-part form) moves from E flat major to E flat minor, taking the listener to even more remote regions of sombre reflection. The second Intermezzo is a study on a recurring, descending two-note motif embedded in garlands of accompanying arpeggios. The mood is wistful, pensive, “composed in Brahms’s rainy-weather mood” (Charles Burr). If the second was Brahms in his “rainy-weather mood,” the third “is surely Brahms at his bluest. … In the middle part, a kind of fearful cheerfulness is attempted, but the brave attempt is doomed.” Brahms called this Intermezzo “the lullaby of all my griefs.”

 

Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op. 116

The titles of the seven pieces in Op.116, “Intermezzo” and “Capriccio,” are not especially revealing in themselves of any unique properties, though the Intermezzos tend to project a reflective, late autumnal quality in music of quiet resignation and tender sentiments, while the Capriccios are energetic and even passionate. Each is a unique and distinct creation, yet together they constitute a unit greater than the sum of their parts. The entire set opens and closes with a vigorous Capriccio in D minor. Within this framework are found four Intermezzos and another Capriccio, all in keys closely related to D minor and to each other. Malcolm MacDonald, in his monograph on the composer, even makes a case for Op. 116 as a multi-movement sonata, with No. 3 as a scherzo and Nos. 4-6 as the slow movement in E major with a central contrasting E minor section. The motivic unity is striking: the three Capriccios all feature melodic chains of descending thirds, a quality found more discreetly in the Intermezzos as well.

Each piece is in three-part form, with a contrasting central section and with a return of the opening material sometimes considerably modified and, in a few cases, much abridged. Within these general outlines, Brahms lets his poetic imagination roam freely as he develops short, epigrammatic or enigmatic musical cells in some of his most personal and intimate compositions. Simplicity and concentration are the keynotes. Lionel Salter stated the case perfectly when he wrote: “Their brevity only serves to heighten the intensity of their feeling. It is as if the composer, at the end of his life, had compressed the essence of his musical and emotional thoughts into these miniatures.”

 

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 37 (Grande Sonate)

Excepting The Seasons, rarely does any of Tchaikovsky’s solo piano music turn up on recitals, and few pianists have championed the sonata on today’s program. Yet here we have a work written on a grand scale that is laden with brilliant effects, passionate writing, Tchaikovskian melancholy and orchestrally- conceived sonorities. There are plenty of critics today who heap opprobrium on the sonata, but such was also the case for the same composer’s first piano concerto, which went on to become the world’s most popular work of its kind. A persuasive performance of the Grande Sonate inevitably leaves the audience wondering why this work is not played more often.

The sonata bears no official number, as it is really the only completed work in this genre Tchaikovsky acknowledged in his lifetime. He began a Sonata in F minor in 1863 while still a student in St. Petersburg (its single movement has been completed by pianist Leslie Howard), and finished one in C sharp minor two years later, but the latter was not published until after his death, when it was assigned the misleading opus number 80, even though the music antedates his Op. 1. It is sometimes referred to as “Sonata No. 1” today. The G major sonata was composed in the same year (1878) as the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. It was dedicated to the German pianist Karl Klindworth, but the highly successful first performance went to Nicolai Rubinstein in Moscow on November 2 1879.

The opening fully justifies the appellation Grande Sonate in its evocation of processional pomp and splendour. During the course of this highly energetic sonata-form movement Tchaikovsky incorporates three well-contrasted subjects. The development section is unusually dramatic and elaborate, the textures at times approaching orchestral density.

The slow movement, like that of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is based more on harmony than on melody. Nevertheless, it is imbued with typically Tchaikovskian melancholy in the outer sections, and with inspired lyricism in its central episode.

The Scherzo departs from the standard model in its unusual metre of 6/16, which involves two sets of triplets per bar. Many listeners and commentators find this the most interesting movement of the sonata, one marked by sparkling brilliance, intriguing cross rhythms and exquisite delicacy.

No fewer than four themes are incorporated into the rondo-finale. Most memorable are the opening refrain and the sweeping melody that sounds for all the world like an operatic tenor pouring his heart out to his lover.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Vilde Frang

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F major

Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto is such an established pillar of the standard repertory that it comes as a surprise to learn that this composer also wrote three sonatas for the instrument, although these are as obscure as the concerto is popular. The first, in F major, dates from 1820 when the composer was still a lad of eleven; the second, in F minor, was written five years later and published as Op. 4; and the third is a work of Mendelssohn’s maturity, written in 1838, but not published during the composer’s lifetime. This sonata was discovered only in 1953 by Yehudi Menuhin, who also introduced audiences to Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto in D minor. Of the sonata, Menuhin wrote that it “has the chivalrous romantic quality of the age that produced Schumann, the elegance and lightness of touch of the age inherited from Mozart, and in addition the perfect formal presentation which Mendelssohn himself drew from Bach.”

The sonata opens with a bold, striding subject, almost Schumannesque in its vigor, first for the piano alone, then for the violin accompanied by a torrent of arpeggios in the piano. The tightly-knit structure of this sonata soon becomes apparent as the first theme dissolves into the second, whose character is different (suavely lyrical) but whose rhythmic profile is based on that of the opening subject. The slow movement features music of ravishing sweetness, and the last scampers along with characteristic Mendelssohnian fleetness and lightness of touch.

 

Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, Op. 13

Gabriel Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms: piano pieces, chamber music, works for small chorus, and songs. In the larger forms he left a famous Requiem and two rarely-heard operas, Prométhée and Pénélope. The sonata we hear this afternoon, composed in 1876 and lasting nearly half an hour, is actually one of his largest pieces.

Fauré himself said that his music exemplified “the eminently French qualities of taste, clarity and sense of proportion.” He hoped to express “the taste for clear thought, purity of form and sobriety.” To these qualities we might add meticulous workmanship, elegance and refinement, for in all these respects his Violin Sonata Op. 13 certainly conforms.

“Schumannesque” is often used to describe the opening movement, not only for the music’s impassioned urgency, but for its sophisticated rhythmic layering, pervasive use of syncopation, and intricate mingling of the voices. The second movement, a barcarolle in D minor, offers some much needed relief. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: stylish, witty, brittle, epigrammatic, and crackling with electricity are just a few of the descriptions that have been applied to this undeniably appealing music. The finale is another sonata-form movement with an unorthodox sequence of keys (again the Schumann influence).

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in A major, K. 305 (K. 293d)

Aside from the symphony, Mozart wrote more violin sonatas than any other type of music. More than forty sonatas survive, and they were written in every period of Mozart’s life, starting at age of six. Nearly half of the early sonatas are essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, in which the violin merely doubles the melodic lines and adds incidental imitation and dispensable figuration. But beginning with the so-called “Palatinate” (or “Palatine”) Sonatas (K. 296 and K. 301-306), written in Paris during the first half of 1778, Mozart gave the violin a significantly greater role to play, drawing the two instruments closer to the equal partnership found in the late sonatas. The designation Palatinate refers to the dedicatee, Maria Elisabeth, wife of Carl Theodor, Elector of the Palatinate (a region in western Germany adjoining France).

Brilliance, energy and much unison writing mark the first movement, whose exuberance is relieved only during the gentle second theme. It is in standard sonata form, with a short but harmonically adventurous development section. The second movement is a theme and variations set. The theme is, as violinist Abram Loft puts it, “all melting lyricism and grace.” The first of the six variations is for piano alone, the second involves many ornamental touches from the violin, the third consists of flowing triplets traded back and forth between the two instruments, the fourth has the violin playing a simple melodic line while the piano provides a luxuriant underlay, the fifth is in the minor mode, and the sixth brings the sonata to a joyous conclusion.

 

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata no. 2 in D major, Op. 94a

September 1942 found Prokofiev in the far-off, exotic Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was working with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Ivan the Terrible. Having a fair bit of free time on his hands, Prokofiev decided to use it to write something quite different from the film score he was preparing. With memories of the great French flutist Georges Barrère in his mind from his Paris years (1922-1932), Prokofiev sketched out a sonata for flute and piano, on which he put the finishing touches upon returning to Moscow the following year. The first performance was given in December by the flutist Nikolai Charkovsky and accompanied by Sviatoslav Richter. But scarcely anyone else seemed interested in the work, so when David Oistrakh suggested that Prokofiev turn it into a violin sonata, the composer eagerly agreed. In this form, the work bears opus number 94a (or 94bis). The first performance of the Violin Sonata took place on June 17, 1944, played by Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. (Prokofiev’s other violin sonata, No. 1, was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1946, well after the “second” sonata.

Prokofiev said he “wanted to write the sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” These qualities are immediately evident in the first movement, both of the principal themes are lyrical and eloquent. The Scherzo, in A minor, bubbles over with witty, energetic writing in the form of flying leaps, rapid register changes and strongly marked rhythms, while the brief, expressive slow movement possesses, in critic Alan Rich’s words, “the tenderness of a Mozartian andante.” The Finale goes through several changes of mood and tempo and, in the concluding pages, it hurtles along with a white-heat intensity to a thrilling close.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Program Notes: Beatrice Rana

 

Robert Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Schumann’s Abegg Variations first appeared in November of 1831, but Schumann had completed it more than a year earlier, shortly after his twentieth birthday and before he had made the commitment to a life of music (he was still studying law in Heidelberg at the time).  It is no fumbling attempt, but rather an assured, individual work from a composer who already knows piano technique intimately.

“Abegg” was the surname of a young lady, Meta Abegg, Schumann had met at a ball in Mannheim. He dedicated his Op. 1 to “Pauline, Countess of Abegg,” though both “Pauline” and “Countess” were fictitious. Nor did Schumann have any amorous intent, as Meta was already in love with someone else. The French appellation was in deference to Paris as the center of pianistic virtuosity at the time, and the theme-and-variations form was the most popular formula for demonstrating this virtuosity. Themes were usually drawn from popular operatic numbers of the day (Rossini, Bellini, Auber, etc.), but Schumann broke with convention and invented his own. Actually, it is more of a fragment than a theme, which, in fact, spell the name ABEGG.

The work consists of an introduction, in which the five-note motif is spun out both forwards and backwards over four variations, including a quiet, reflective Cantabile, and a Finale alla fantasia. Biographer Eric Jensen notes that “it is clear that Schumann intended the work to be comparatively conventional, entertaining, and pleasing – goals that, as time passed, increasingly he abandoned.” However, the music is anything but easy to play, and cannot have been intended for amateurs to fool around with at home.

 

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

To Schumann, the piano was the instrument through which he confided his most intimate thoughts, and was his most personal medium of artistic expression, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the Symphonic Etudes are intimately connected to the composer’s personal life.

Out of his romantically fertile imagination, Schumann created a gallery of fictional characters known as the Davidsbund (band of David), two of whom are opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego: Florestan, representing his extroverted, exuberant side; Eusebius his quiet, meditative side. Davidsbund were the proud musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. Florestan and Eusebius are deeply bound up in the world of the Symphonic Etudes. Among the titles Schumann tried out before settling on the present one are Etuden im Orchestercharakter von Florestan und Eusebius and Davidsbündler Etudes.

The opening gesture, a full-fledged theme, forms an integral part of the composition and serves as the basis of a series of variations. The number of variations, the title of the set and their ordering went through numerous changes in the course of the nineteenth century, extending to well after the composer’s death. In the form most commonly encountered today, the Études symphoniques (Schumann used the French title for the first published edition of 1837), there are twelve numbers following presentation of the dirge-like theme in C sharp minor. Originally Schumann wrote six more as well, but withdrew them, mostly due to difficulties in arranging a proper sequence of so many variations in the same key and for the most part of similar character. Five of these “extra” variations were salvaged by Brahms and published as a supplement in 1873.

Most of the Etudes (or studies) are also variations, although very freely fashioned out of the original theme. The “symphonic” aspect of this music refers to the organic growth and extensive working out of the theme as well as to the orchestral textures, colors, sonorities and effects suggested or realized.

 

Frédéric Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28

Aside from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes (1838) are surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. (There also exists a solitary additional Prelude, Op. 45.) Other composers have also essayed the procedure, including Alkan, Bentzon, Busoni, Hummel, Kabalevsky, Kalkbrenner, Scriabin and Shostakovich. But those of Bach and Chopin remain by far the best known.

The Bach connection is borne out in biographer James Huneker’s remark that Chopin was “one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.” Franz Liszt, always one to recognize the bold innovations of genius, praised the Preludes: “This composition is of a kind by itself … poetic preludes, analogous to those of a contemporary poet [Lamartine], which soothe the soul with golden dreams and raise it to ideal regions. Admirable in their diversity, they reveal a labor and knowledge that can be appreciated only by careful study. Everything is full of spontaneity, élan, bounce. They have the free and great features that characterize the works of genius.”

Some people are perplexed by the title “prelude” in view of the fact that nothing follows. Reinhard Schulz’s cogent explanation should clarify the point: “The purpose of a prelude has always been to establish the mood of something which is to follow, anticipating its basic characteristics. Each of Chopin’s Preludes may be understood as containing the essence of an entire world of feelings – it is left to the receptive listener to fill in the detailed picture in his mind.”

The Preludes are arranged in pairs of major and minor keys and ascend in intervals of the fifth. Hence: C major, A minor (no sharps or flats); G major, E minor (1 sharp); D major, B minor (2 sharps), etc., through six sharps, then 6 flats, 5 flats, and so on down to 1 flat. Each of these 24 cameos, these “moods in miniature,” inhabits a private world of its own, from the feverish energy of the first to the noble pathos of the final piece. As Robert Schumann said of them, “may each person search for what suits him; may only Philistines stay away!”

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

PROGRAM NOTES: SITKOVETSKY TRIO

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op. 101

This is the last work Brahms wrote for the piano trio. It is a magnificent work in every respect, from the sharply etched melodies to the concision and masterly manner in which they are handled. It is also one of Brahms’s most compact scores, tightly and concisely argued using a minimum of melodic substance developed with maximum efficiency. Brahms seemed to reserve C minor for some of his weightiest, most dramatic and gravely serious works – the First Symphony, the First String Quartet and the Third Piano Quartet come to mind. The first performances – in Hofstetten and Budapest that year – were private ones. The Trio’s official public premiere took place on February 26, 1887 in Vienna with members of the Heckmann Quartet and Brahms at the piano.

The very opening is sufficient to arrest the listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the movement: a bold, even fierce gesture that biographer Malcolm MacDonald refers to as “explosive wrath.” This first subject consists of several elements, including a tautly rhythmic figure for the three instruments in unison. The second theme, though warmly lyrical, brings no relaxation of the tension and momentum.

The second movement, also in C minor, is mysterious, almost wraithlike, yet also of great delicacy. MacDonald calls it “a profoundly uneasy movement of grey half-lights, rapid stealthy motion, and suppressed sadness.” The central episode changes to block chords for the piano and pizzicato for the strings, but the mood remains subdued. The dynamic level rarely rises above piano.

The third movement’s main features are a relaxed mood of tenderness and natural simplicity with an antiphonal treatment of piano and strings and an irregular metre of 7/4. The key is now C major rather than C minor. For the central section the music moves into another rare metre, 15/8 (five equal groups of triplets).

The sonata-form finale returns to C minor and to the spirit of grim determination that dominated the first. As in the monumental First Symphony, drama and fury give way to radiant warmth, and C minor yields to C major in the final pages.

 

Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

Six years after writing his first piano trio (1839), Mendelssohn produced a second. It was first performed on December 20, 1845 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was serving as conductor of its famous orchestra. The musicians were the orchestra’s concertmaster Ferdinand David, cellist Franz Karl Witmann and the composer as pianist.

The first movement, in perfectly constructed sonata-form, opens with a restless, flowing subject for the piano, soon joined by the strings. The second subject is a glorious, life-affirming theme in E flat major. The exposition is not repeated, perhaps since the development section is so extensive and does such a thorough job of working out both themes with great inventiveness.

The slow movement offers a good measure of consolation after the relentless pace and intensity of the first. It is a three-part structure, with the outer ones gently songlike and set to the pervasive rhythmic pattern of short-long, short-long. The central section has a more flowing quality and is sustained by the piano’s continuous triplet figures.

The Scherzo flies by in a blizzard of notes. It is further characterized by much imitative writing and by a vaguely Hungarian gypsy flavor.

In its powerful sonorities, massive piano chords, extremes of range, seriousness of purpose and overall intensity, the finale seems to speak more of Brahms than of Mendelssohn. Another feature of this movement is the incorporation of a chorale-like theme that has had scholars searching intently for its German-Lutheran origin – in vain. The Trio concludes with an extensive, exuberant coda in C major that is nearly symphonic is scope.

 

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929)

If the public today holds a slight preference for the first of Schubert’s two piano trios, the one in B flat major, this is countered by Schubert’s own preference for the other, in E flat. Both reflect the composer’s study of similar works by Mozart and Beethoven in their refined compositional technique and equal partnership of three instruments. The first performance was given on the day after Christmas, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Exactly three months later, in the same hall, Schubert performed the piano part at the only public concert he ever gave. The concert was an artistic and financial success, but the event was never repeated.

Lasting about forty minutes in performance, the E flat Trio is longer than any Schubert symphony except the Great C major. Although it does not contain as many beguiling themes as does the B flat Trio, it has even fuller, almost symphonic textures with greater brilliance and more breadth to the development sections.

The first movement is constructed from four thematic ideas. The first of these, memorable as it is, and boldly stated in the opening bars, turns out to be the one Schubert employs the least, while the last of them is the one he exploits to the fullest. The melancholy cast of the slow movement derives from a Swedish ballad Schubert presumably borrowed after hearing a tenor sing it. The Scherzo is a canon, with close imitation between piano and strings, while its central Trio section takes on the quality of a waltz. The finale breathes an air of carefree charm and lightness, at least initially. The second theme offers marked contrast of mood, metre and key. The movement develops into one of the longest Schubert ever wrote, over a thousand measures in the original version, but even in reduced form, as commonly played today, it runs to nearly fifteen minutes. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s final symphony as being “of heavenly length” can again be invoked for the finale of the E flat trio.

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

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