Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

Program Notes: Tony Siqi Yun

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

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Franz Liszt
Réminiscences de Norma  S 394

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird Suite (arr. Agosti)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Thomas May 2021

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bent Sørensen 
Doppelgänger for String Quartet

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

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

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

 

Franz Schubert
Der Doppelgänger (arr. Danish String Quartet)

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

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

Der Doppelgänger

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

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

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

– Heinrich Heine

The Ghostly Double

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

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

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

– trans. D. Gíslason

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

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

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

(c) Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Ema Nikolovska

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

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

 

Amy Beach

Ich sagte nicht  Op. 51 No. 1

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

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

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

 

Claude Debussy

Trois chansons de Bilitis 

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

 

Hugo Wolf
Nachtzauber
Nimmersatte Liebe
Auf einer Wanderung

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

 

Maurice Ravel
Histoires Naturelles 

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

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

*                              *                              *

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Tristan Teo

Robert Schumann  
Widmung (arr. Franz Liszt)

The year 1840 was Robert Schumann’s Liederjahr, his ‘year of song’. After 10 years of writing almost exclusively for the piano, Schumann in 1840 burst into song, composing well over a hundred Lieder.

One song collection, Myrthen Op. 25, had a special meaning for the composer. It was a wedding gift to his young wife, the pianist Clara Wieck, whom he married on Sept 12, 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. The ‘myrtle flowers’ of the song collection’s title are associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love, and thus with marriage.

The first song in the collection, Widmung (Dedication) was a setting of a love poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). The intense fixation of the lover on his beloved is reinforced by the poem’s frequent repetition of “you” in virtually every line:

You my soul, you my heart,
You my rapture, O you my pain,
You my world in which I live…

Schumann’s song begins with an evocation of blissful emotional fulfillment in a series of rippling arpeggios topped by a dotted rhythm, indicative of a quickened heartbeat. Liszt preserves the original scoring, but in his repeat of the first section he reverses the roles of the left and right hands, allowing us to savour even more Schumann’s gorgeous melody—and his own pianistic ingenuity.

The middle section pulses with soothing triplets, underscoring the text’s reference to peace and heavenly repose (“You are bestowed on me from heaven”). Liszt, of course, can’t help but beef up the texture just a tad but is generally on his best behaviour—until, that is, the reprise of the first section, when he reveals the identity of his own true love: the piano itself.

Schumann’s simple, reverential restatement of the opening section becomes, in the hands of Liszt, a glorious apotheosis. In a brilliant application of the ‘three-hand effect’ popularized by Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871), Liszt keeps the melody singing out in the mid-range, richly supported by a resonant bass texture, while a full-on Fourth of July fireworks show sizzles up and down in the treble, splattering the celestial regions of the keyboard with tonal sparkle.

In the film Song of Love (1947) Katherine Hepburn, playing Clara Schumann, indignantly turns up her nose upon hearing Liszt play his self-aggrandizing adaptation of her wedding present. But notwithstanding this swipe from Hollywood, Liszt’s transcription has remained a favourite encore piece among concert pianists right up to this day. And justly so.

 

Nikolai Kapustin
Variations Op. 41

If the aesthetic chasm separating the concert hall from the jazz lounge has narrowed in recent years, thanks must go to the late pianist-composer Nikolai Kapustin (pronounced kah-POU-steen), whose works have been performed in concert by Yuja Wang, recorded by Marc-André Hamelin, and selected for performance at major international piano competitions—by Tristan Teo, among many others. And we are not talking ‘crossover’ here. Kapustin was an authentic virtuoso pianist, a graduate of the piano program at the Moscow Conservatory, who simply turned out to be a classical composer working in the jazz idiom, as his website puts it.

While his harmonic vocabulary is American jazz to the core, his formal structures are those of Western classical music. He has written a Baroque suite, like Bach, a set of 24 Preludes, like Chopin, and even a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, like both Bach and Shostakovich.

His Variations Op. 41 (1984) features a theme and six variations unfolding in a continuous stream, without formal breaks. The theme itself is a jazzy variant of the opening bassoon solo from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, presented in a remarkably relaxed and breezy manner. The pagan tribes that scandalized Paris in 1913 seem to have scrubbed off their war paint and are all now vacationing at a seaside resort, in Hawaiian shirts, sipping mint juleps.

Kapustin’s absorption of the widest possible range of jazz styles is evident in the variations that follow. Many feature ostinato patterns in the left hand against an ecstatically free floating, bee-boppy right hand. Oscar Peterson can be heard in parallel left- and right-hand lines at double octave distances. Count Basie’s punchy chords in the mid-range make their presence felt in syncopated response to both stride bass and walking bass keyboard styles. Whatever the style, Kapustin’s sense of forward momentum is irresistible.

In keeping with classical tradition, he offers a slow variation right before the finale, one in which the Rite of Spring motive is presented most clearly in the opening phrase.  After that, the finale is an exhilarating race to the finish in a breathless display of jazzy pianistic panache.

 

Modest Mussorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

A deeply reflective version of the Promenade then cleanses the aural palette to prepare us for a welcome contrast, a scene as feather-light and treble-centred as the previous portrait was ponderous and bass-heavy: the Ballet of the Hatched Chicks. Just released from their shells, these spry young fry spring, hop and flutter as they try out their wings and feet in a joyous exploration of their new barnyard home.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Jaeden Izik-Dzurko

Alexander Scriabin
Valse  Op. 38

It is easy to see why Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.”  Like his Polish musical forebear he wrote almost exclusively for the piano and began his career by composing mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes and études. In this Valse we catch the composer near the end of his early Chopin period, before he went all ‘Star Trek’ on the Western harmonic system and started writing chords in 4ths rather than 3rds.

A dichotomy of musical styles outlines for us the traits of the couple dancing this waltz. There is a feminine coyness and delicacy in many passages, with achingly nostalgic chromatic harmonies leering out from the alto register, aided and abetted by long pedal points in the bass that clarify the underlying harmony. Alternating with this a more red-blooded and masculine ‘grand style’ of piano-playing that exploits the full range of the keyboard.

The rhythmic pulse, however, is anything but the one-lilt-lilt, two-lilt-lilt pattern of a traditional Viennese waltz. While the left hand dutifully renders three beats to the bar, the right hand ignores this invitation to rhythmic orthodoxy. This is a waltz that flutters and flies, free as a bird. It often wanders in wide-ranging melodic curves, framed in 4-to-the-bar and 5-to-the-bar units evocative of a kind of perfumed ecstasy – often interrupted, of course, by more propulsive rhythmic gestures and explosive outbursts of passion.

Whatever champagne these walzers are sipping, chances are it was spiked.

 

Robert Schumann
Sonata No. 3 in F minor  Op. 14

In the summer of 1836 Robert Schumann was pining for his new love, the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy Clara Wieck.  Her father Friedrich Wieck (Schumann’s erstwhile piano teacher) had arranged a concert tour for her, thinking to break up the romance and avoid acquiring a son-in-law he considered too emotionally volatile and psychologically unstable.

Schumann, of course, would not be so easily discouraged, and contrived to have his beloved with him, at least in spirit, by sewing her into the very musical fabric of his Sonata in F minor. Clara is represented by a five-note descending scale figure that appears in all four movements, obviously derived from the opening of the 3rd movement, the famous “Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck,” later to become a favourite encore piece of Vladimir Horowitz.

The importance of this motive is underscored by its appearance at the dramatic opening of the first movement Allegro, thundering in octaves to the nether regions of the keyboard. Schumann’s expressive passion and almost manic wildness of focus in this movement might well serve to justify his future father-in-law’s concerns about his mental stability. Its first theme is both ponderous, with that tumbling-boulder crash of an opening, and flighty, in the rapid passagework that flows directly out of it. Its lyrical second theme has an equally split personality, proceeding at first in an even succession of singable quarter notes before turning into a parody of itself in the kind of jerky dotted rhythms that characterize so many of Schumann’s marches. Throughout, the listener’s ear is continually kept off-balance by spiky syncopations and phrasing patterns that effectively turn the orienting strongest beat of the bar into the weakest.

This rhythmic quirkiness is even more evident in the 2nd movement Scherzo, that likes to begin its descending scale figures on an accented 3rd beat of the bar, but intermittently switches it back to the “proper” first beat. Sorting out this rhythmic mayhem is the main teasing pleasure for the ear in this movement, which is dominated by constant 8th-note scale patterns and imitative textures. The Trio middle section is a calmer, less punchy variant of all this rhythmic irregularity and its ever-so-gradual reintegration into the opening material for the reprise is a compositional tour de force.

The descending scale figures of the Scherzo set the stage for their presentation as a solemn processional in the 3rd movement Andantino de Clara Wieck. There is a ceremonial sadness to this haunting theme, rendered especially ghoulish by the austere coldness and bare-bones texture of its second phrase, like footsteps echoing above the tombs of the dead in an empty cathedral. The first two variations let the theme speak out over the murmurings of gargoyle voices in the bass below. An antic mood dominates the third variation, that is peppered with constant syncopations. The tragic heart of the movement comes in the final variation, which pleads its case in whimpering phrases and cries of heart-rending despair, alternating with poetic daydreams and expressions of intimate tenderness.

The fourth movement, marked Prestissimo possible, is the sort of thing that keeps potential fathers-in-law up at night. It contains some of the most insanely scattered passagework in the piano repertoire, inflected with ricocheting syncopations but blessedly interrupted by regularly recurring passages of songful lyricism. A breathless patter of 16th notes, maintained throughout, gives impetus, forward momentum, and a compelling sense of urgency to this madcap finale.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Lento from Sonata No. 1 in D minor  Op. 28

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 (1908) is not as well known and is much less played than his popular Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913), although both abound in the type of lush textures, soulful melodies, and contrapuntal accompaniments that are the trademarks of the composer’s keyboard style.

Composed in Germany while the composer was living with his family in Dresden, the Sonata in D minor was originally conceived as a programmatic work based on the characters from that most German of tales: Goethe’s Faust. This idea was then abandoned, but traces of the philosophical origins of the sonata’s conception remained, most notably in the prominent use of the ‘elemental’ interval of the perfect 5th in every movement of the work.

The central slow movement begins, in fact, with a chain of falling 5ths in the bass that finally arrive at the F major tonic and its fifth, which endure as pedal points for the next 25 bars. Not surprisingly, a sense of stillness pervades the movement as a whole, its gently rocking triplets evoking the cosy warmth of a berceuse.

This is one of Rachmaninoff’s most intimate, inward-looking slow movements, crafted within a small range of motion in the middle of the keyboard and fluctuating modestly in dynamic range – for the most part, between piano and mezzoforte. Its tone is one of quiet reflection, reminiscent of the placid mood of the Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4.

The texture is intricately wrought, a piece of compositional lacework with at times a full four-part murmuring of contrapuntal lines, and with so many overlapping voices that it leaves the ear wondering what to listen to, and the pianist perplexed as to what to bring out.

Unlike in the slow movements of other major works such as the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos and the Sonata No. 2, Rachmaninoff eschews a contrasting middle section that sends the heart racing at break-neck speed, favouring instead a slight intensification in the left hand’s rippling accompaniment and a more wide-ranging palette of harmonic colours, culminating in a cadenza that shimmers softly up the keyboard rather than seeking to dazzle.

The reprise of the opening material features a series of luscious trills in the inner voices of the right hand – oscillating, of course, in 5ths – to close out the movement in the spirit of the exquisite repose with which it began.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor

Jean-Philippe Rameau
Gavotte and Variations in A minor

The modern pianist seeking to play the Baroque harpsichord repertoire faces many obstacles, starting with the friendly fire of his own trusty Steinway itself, so different in sound from the perky little plucked-string sound box for which this music was originally written. A note on the harpsichord has a rapid initial decay but a decently long sustain, perfect for creating the transparency of texture on which contrapuntal music depends. The modern concert grand, by contrast, has a much thicker, more resonant sound that takes longer to ‘bloom’ and longer still to decay.  Its sumptuously rich sounds, if not sifted with care, risk reducing the delicate weave of ornamented Baroque counterpoint to a sonic slurry of blurred overtones incomprehensible at distances farther than a small child can throw a metronome.

And yet Jean-Philippe Rameau’s attempts to make the harpsichord a sustaining instrument, matched with his dramatic innovations in keyboard technique and innate sense of theatricality, make his harpsichord music ideal for the modern concert hall. Its unusual combination of the graceful and the virtuosic have a ready appeal for modern audiences.

The Gavotte and Variations in A minor comes from Rameau’s third collection of harpsichord pieces published ca. 1728 under the title of Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin.  It features a two-part dance melody of small melodic range in simple note values, doled out in even 4-bar phrases over a series of resonant harmonies.  These are followed by six doubles (i.e., variations in faster note values), the first three of which feature a steady stream of running notes in the treble, the bass, and the mid-range, respectively.

The keyboard fireworks begin in the fourth variation when the hands begin a merry chase, ‘shadowing’ each other to perform repeated notes in the octaves on either side of middle C.  The last two variations combine repeated notes with arpeggio figurations, increasing the keyboard range covered by each hand to as much as a 13th. With the basic harmonies of the theme doggedly being stamped out in the right hand while the left hand juggles bass notes over a wide swath, Rameau ends these variations with a dramatically grander version of his simple gavotte than he began with.

 

Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana  Op. 16

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

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

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

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

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

Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.

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

 

Franz Liszt
Berceuse in D-flat major  S.174 (2nd version)

Liszt wrote the first version of his Berceuse in 1854 and a revised second version, the one most often played, in 1863. His modelling was quite evidently Chopin’s own Berceuse Op. 57. Both works are written in D-flat major, and consist of ever-more-complex variations on a simple four-bar theme unfolding over a repeated tonic pedal note in the bass.

But the differences between the two works are as striking as their similarities. Chopin’s Berceuse is impersonally atmospheric, the glimmer of its ornamental filigree and colourful dissonances always subordinate to the music-box monotony of its dominant-over-tonic-pedal harmony. Liszt’s harmonies, while still maintaining the tonic pedal, are more wide-ranging, and his manner of expression more individualistic and personal, with frequent fermatas interrupting the musical flow, recitatives giving voice to spontaneous dramatic asides, and cadenzas drawing attention to the poetic soul and virtuoso credentials of the performing musician.

In a work that whispers along at a dynamic level of mostly pp and ppp, a work replete with ‘shushing’ warnings to play dolcissimo, smorzando and perdendo, the principal challenge for the pianist is finding the right scale of dynamics at which to project Liszt’s drama-filled sleepy-time musings with real conviction.

 

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor  S.178

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.”  Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Schumann Quartet

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quartet in D major  K. 499 “Hoffmeister”

Mozart’s most accomplished string quartets are generally considered to be the ten he wrote after moving to Vienna in 1781, beginning with the set of six dedicated to Haydn, published in 1785 and ending with the set of three dedicated to the King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, published in 1791. In between came a ‘one-off,’ the four-movement Quartet in D major K. 499 composed in 1786 and dedicated to Mozart’s friend and fellow Freemason, the music publisher and composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812).

This is a quartet that gets ever more  compositionally ‘weighty’ with each movement. Its minuet and finale are unusually intense in their use of contrapuntal procedure, perhaps as a result of Mozart’s discovery and study of the works of Bach. And its slow movement pulls out all the stops in its search for deep expressiveness, perhaps under the influence of Haydn.

The first movement Allegretto is surprisingly light, both in its thematic material and the elaboration of it.  It opens with a gentle fanfare as all four instruments in unison hop through the notes of the D major triad, ending with four repeated notes on the dominant. These two motives—the arpeggiated triad and the jolly repetitions of a single note—will pervade the movement to such an extent that one can hardly even speak of there being a second theme at all. The entire movement unfolds as a series of loose variations on its opening bars.

The Menuetto is where things get interesting. Normally conceived of as a place of mental relaxation and toe-tapping repose, this minuet gets ever ‘brainier’ as it goes along, with creeping chromatic lines and small points of imitation in the opening dance steps preparing the way for full-on canonic imitation in the minor-mode trio. Arrestingly novel is the way in which Mozart plays “bait and switch” with the cadencing bar of the trio, turning it surprisingly into the first bar of the minuet when returning to the opening material.

The Adagio pleads its case with poise and dignity in slow, halting dotted rhythms, which soon give birth to the long lines of florid decoration in the first violin that will dominate the movement. Unexpected harmonic turns and pulsing accompaniment figures deepen the expressivity of the thematic material. Notable is the way in which Mozart often divides the quartet into pairs of upper and lower instruments that echo each other’s sentiments in alternation.

In his Allegro finale Mozart paints a chiaroscuro of light and dark textures. Nothing could be easier to follow than its playful opening, that features a teasing series of short phrases tossed out by the first violin between pauses. And yet few things could be more eye-crossing and eyebrow-knitting than the dense contrapuntal entanglements that these simple triplet figures get enmeshed in before the movement ends.  Perhaps the dedication of this work to a close personal friend allowed Mozart the freedom to express his own personal character, by turns mischievous and learned, in this quartet.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major  Op. 117

In 1962, Shostakovich had risked the wrath of the Soviet authorities with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread antisemitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major (1964), which is laid out in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern.

The power of Shostakovich’s musical language in this quartet lies in its ambivalence. His use of recurring themes and musical motives, presented and developed in various voices of the texture, and in various contrapuntal contexts, is in line with the rhetorical heritage of the string quartet going back to the time of Haydn and Mozart. The way in which these themes and motives are treated, however, is more in line with the soul-destroying rhetoric of Soviet double-speak.

The first movement, for example, opens with a jaunty melody featuring a rising 3rd and falling 4th, eminently suitable for whistling on a bright sunny day. In Shostakovich’s setting, though, it is deprived of the cheerful harmony it deserves, and instead is fraught with worry, hounded by the constant murmuring of menacing running figures—as if being followed by the KGB. This is a melody that constantly changes direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, unable to escape the dull drone on the cello below.

The almost clownish second theme, strutting about in staccato, has even more reason to be merry with its octave leaps and chipper oft-repeated motive of a filled-in minor third. But its leering accompaniment seems more mocking than supportive. And then there are those worrying murmurs from the running figures that keep coming back to keep watch on the proceedings.

The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, as emotionally intense in parts as Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. Emphasis on minor chords in the harmony creates a mood of unremitting sadness while its hymn-like texture of four closely-set string voices seems almost claustrophobic.  The first violin’s rumination on the filled-in minor 3rd motive, mournfully slowed down, provides a thematic link to the immediately following third movement Allegretto.

And here is where the real fun begins as the first movement’s filled-in minor third motive is transformed into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (AKA the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors. All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat poking his head out from the wings to clap and yell “Hey!” at the end of every phrase.

The fourth movement takes as its theme the worrying running figures that murmured throughout the first movement.  Extreme contrasts in texture characterize this Adagio, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi-string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.

All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, including the murmuring running figures, the emphatic pizzicati, and the ‘Lone Ranger’ theme. It culminates in a mighty fugue and a long, exhilarating march to its final, punchy proclamation in unison of the one motive that has dominated this work from start to finish: the filled-in minor third.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet in E minor  Op. 44 No. 2

Mendelssohn wrote in a neo-Classical style that prized simplicity and directness of expression in clear transparent textures and balanced formal structures, effortlessly enriched with Baroque-style counterpoint. In the age of Liszt he seemed to be channelling Mozart. And yet his credentials as a Romantic composer were considerable. Lyricism came naturally to him and he had a real gift for pathos.

Unique amongst composers of the post-Beethoven generation, Mendelssohn seemed unperturbed by the challenge of integrating the Romantic notion of music as feeling, an emotion to be experienced, into the logical structure of the Classical sonata, with its conception of music as idea, to be analyzed and processed. All of these qualities are on full display in his four-movement Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2, composed in 1837.

Its opening Allegro assai appassionato balances the emotional states of brooding restlessness and welcome repose. It opens with a panting accompaniment supporting an arching theme that travels up the E minor triad and down again, ending with a sigh motive. Many have noted the resemblance between this theme and opening of the Violin Concerto in the same key that he was to write the following year. The second theme, in a sunny G major, is based on the rhythmic profile of the first, using many of its motives as well, especially the sigh motive. This equivalence is made explicit when the E minor first theme reappears, dressed in the happier G major tonality, near the end of the exposition. For Mendelssohn, then, the contrast expected in sonata-form between first and second themes is represented by the contrast between minor and major. It is the psychological contrast, in feeling and emotion, between tone colours, not between thematically distinct musical materials.

The two theme siblings are then developed using the classic devices of the Classical era: modulation, fragmentation and close imitation. And the recapitulation, which arrives with the infinite subtlety and nuance of a morning sunrise, holds only one surprise in store: its quiet ending.

The fleet and light-stepping scherzo is so associated with the Mendelssohn brand that such movements by other composers are often called ‘Mendelssohnian’. And in this quartet the composer in this second movement does not disappoint. The defining gesture, or ‘hook’ of this movement (to use the jargon of popular music) is the feathery shiver of repeated notes with which it begins. Spicy features of this scherzo are Mendelssohn’s delirious use of cross-rhythms, hemiola, and even a hint of fugato. Once again turning Classical forms to Romantic use, Mendelssohn creates no separate ‘trio’ to contrast with the animated motion of the scherzo, preferring instead to grab moments of occasional lyrical relief on the fly at various points in the movement’s trajectory.

What follows is not the classic slow movement but rather an Andante, very similar in style to one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for piano. With his indication nicht schleppend in the score, Mendelssohn warns against “schlepping” in the tempo, lest the movement’s dignified lyricism devolve into mere sentimentality and smarminess. To keep things moving along, he provides a constant ripple of 16th-note figuration in the accompaniment beneath the soaring melody line, which is projected almost exclusively by the first violin.

The sonata-rondo finale is remarkable for its driving energy and integration of disparate musical materials into a continuous flow by means of flawless transitions and motivic linkages. Mendelssohn’s ability to communicate urgency without panic, and breeziness without flippancy, allows him to construct in this movement a panorama of interconnected moods, all loyal to the same overarching rhythm.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis

Gabriel Fauré
Dolly Suite  Op. 56

In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.

In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.

Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.

Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.

Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.

Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.

Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.

The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.

 

Francis Poulenc
Sonata for Piano Duet

The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.

Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.

Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.

Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.

The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.

The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody.  It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”

 

Claude Debussy
Six Épigraphes antiques

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.

In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.

He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.

A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.

A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.

A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.

She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.

The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.

 

Igor Stravinsky
Trois Pièces faciles

The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915.  In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella.  The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.

What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.

The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.

Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.

The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.

 

Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:

Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’

The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.

Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.

Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.

Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.

Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Yuja Wang

Baldassare Galuppi
Andante from the Sonata in C major

The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.

The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.

Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911 

The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.

To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.

The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.

A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.

The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68

Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi, from the melancholy to the exuberant. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.

Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.

Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.

The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.

The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.

 

Johannes Brahms
Late Piano Pieces  Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119

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

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

The Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30

In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.

A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.

The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.

The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.

 

Maurice Ravel
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs

Une Barque sur l’Océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.

 

Alban Berg
Sonata Op. 1

The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.

The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”

This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. However, its principal melodic motives, presented in its two opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, announced in the opening bar in a dotted rhythm, and (b) a sequence of falling thirds in the following bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.

And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff  (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.

What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, in the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.

 

Federico Mompou
Secreto

Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.

The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.

 

Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53

Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.

Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.

The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.

Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.

But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Program Notes: Doric String Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin

Jean Sibelius
Quartet in D minor  Op. 56  Voces Intimae

Sibelius’ Quartet in D minor was completed in 1909 and has five movements, symmetrically arranged in an arch form around the lyrical third-movement Adagio, with scherzos on either side separating it from the opening movement and finale.

The name Voces Intimae derives from a Latin inscription (meaning “intimate voices”) written in the composer’s hand above three mysterious repeated chords in the manuscript of the lyrical slow movement. And indeed, the whole quartet seems like one long conversation between inner voices, given how much motivic material the movements share between them.

The work opens with a short duet between violin and cello that affirms the work’s allegiance to the simple D minor scale. When all four instruments join together they introduce at the top of their first phrase an important musical motive: a single step up, followed by a downward leap of a 4th. This motive will dominate the development section in the middle of the movement and is emphatically proclaimed in its closing bars. Another melodic pattern repeated throughout the entire quartet comes in the movement’s second theme, a short skip up and down the scale with a dotted rhythm.

Sibelius’ slivery coolness of affect in this movement results from his constant use of running scale passages, often in all four voices simultaneously. His ideas are mostly presented linearly, in contrapuntal lines that often move together in the same note values, rather than in the standard texture of foreground melody with supporting background harmony. Block chords in this movement are reserved for special moments of emphasis that separate phrases or formal sections.

The brief second movement follows without a break and its tone is that of a Mendelssohnian scherzo that transforms the principal motives from the preceding movement into a feathery moto perpetuo of pulsing string tremolo, either scurrying along in unison like the string lines that open the famous finale of his Fifth Symphony, or richocheting acrobatically through sonic space.

The emotional heart of this quartet arrives in its third movement Adagio, structured around the alternation of two themes in contrasting tone colours—one major, the other minor. It is during the first appearance of the minor-mode theme that we hear the three mysterious chords that have given this quartet its nickname. Abandoning the contrapuntal ‘coolness’ of previous movements, Sibelius allows the first violin to pour its heart out in a series of tender melodic lines pleading for resolution, their sense of yearning reinforced by sigh motives and sobbing syncopations.

If the first scherzo in this quartet owes much to Mendelssohn, the second, in the fourth movement, is more indebted to Brahms in its seriousness of tone, Spartan texture and rhythmic heft. The heavy-footed plodding of its simple folk-like theme is occasionally relieved by mysterious strands of minuet-like melody that stand out against the murmuring whispers of running lines in the inner voices.

The concluding rondo finale begins with considerable swagger as punchy phrases, rocking back and forth with off-beat accents, echo through the texture. A new theme of small range is then announced by the viola over a bouncing-bow accompaniment and put up for discussion between all instruments. As the alternation between opening refrain and intervening episodes proceeds, a moto perpetuo dynamic takes over, turning the last half of the movement into an accelerando of steadily increasing momentum. Small fragments of melody pop up from time to time to plead their case against the onslaught of 16th-note patter, but to no avail. This movement drives relentlessly to its conclusion with an energy that even Rossini would envy.

 

Antonín Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major  Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonín Dvořák’s ethnically flavoured but artfully crafted music. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the language of music was rapidly changing, Dvořák offered a range of aesthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era: formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality, devoid of the chromatic ambiguities and slip-sliding harmonic drift that made Wagner’s music so disorienting for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s love of the exotic with his soulful melodies tinged with the tang and bite of village life, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies. And performers loved him, too, for his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings that made every piece ‘speak’ well in the concert hall.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are to be found in his Piano Quintet in A major, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which along with Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in a sunny A major, it soon dips into the minor mode before yielding to a restless, more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This urge to develop themes straight out of the gate is a particularly Brahmsian touch (the F Minor Quintet begins with such contrasts) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody are presented before a second theme, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola. This second theme is then folded into yet another utterly scrumptious blend of piano and string sonority. Dvořák’s inventiveness is limitless, his textures like cookie dough for the ears.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability that impels it into a glorious recapitulation of the opening theme, led by the piano. The movement is crowned by an extended coda with its own propulsive energy that drives headlong to its conclusion.

In place of a slow movement, Dvořák gives us a ‘thoughtful’ one. The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought,’ and the pensive, lonely little opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A-C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a spiffy opening refrain theme and a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

Given its demonstrated mood-brightening effect on concert audiences, this movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a replacement for prescription antidepressants.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2020

 

Top