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Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Jean-Guihen Queyras & Alexander Melnikov

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102

The late 1840s saw Schumann take up “house music” in a big way. This does not mean that he began to DJ at raves, playing dance music with repetitive drum tracks and synthesized basslines. Rather, he had a productive period composing music specifically designed for the home market: Hausmusik. This was music meant to be appreciated by amateurs making music in their own homes, a demographic that had come to make up an increasing proportion of the German middle class during the Biedermeyer period (1815-1848) in which family life was celebrated and home activities like music-making cherished.

In Schumann’s Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano, the “popular” style of these pieces is evident in their simple A-B-A formal structure, their strongly profiled melodies, and their frequent use of drone tones in the bass.

The first piece is entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). It is likely meant to depict a drunken soldier like the one featured in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. Its heavy peasant swing conveys something of the soldier’s alcoholic swagger, or perhaps even stagger, but offers glimpses of his tipsy charm, as well.

The second piece is like a drowsy lullaby, or perhaps just something cozy to play in a room with plenty of coals on the fire and a hot bowl of punch at the ready. This is warm home life distilled into sound.

An aura of mystery seems to pervade the third piece, which opens with a sad waltz in the cello dogged by furtive interruptions in the piano. More lyrical material occupies the middle section, notable for the high register used in the cello and the double-stop writing in 6ths.

The fourth piece offers one of those bravely optimistic and celebratory anthems that one often finds in Schumann, alternating with more fretful expressive outpourings in its middle section.

The least ‘amateur’ of the set is the fifth piece that features copious scoops of double thirds in the piano part and a restless, roving cello line determined to sing out its line on its own terms.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major Op. 69

Beethoven may have made his name in music history for his restless moods and Dionysian fury but there is another side to him that his A major Sonata Op. 69 represents well. This is the Apollonian, classical-era Beethoven, the Beethoven content to live – for the space of four movements at least – in a Mozartean world of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

The opening theme of his first movement, for example, presented in the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, is symmetrically balanced around its opening note, the home note of A major. This solo entry of the cello and its follow-up phrase in the piano (ending in a short cadenza) is then succeeded by a solo entry in the piano and the same follow-up phrase in the cello (ending in a short cadenza). Moreover, the sonata’s second theme is a mirror image of the first, simply inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. While minor-mode turbulence intervenes from time to time, notably in the operatic outpourings of the development section, the piano and cello remain like best buddies in a road movie, always on the same page, never fighting with each other.

The 2nd movement scherzo sets out to see how much fun can be had with syncopation. At first peeking out and then hiding behind the pillars of each bar’s first beat, the two instruments find themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek (in 6ths) in the Trio’s two contrasting episodes.

The 3rd movement Adagio cantabile has puzzled many performers. Its extraordinary brevity, a mere 18 bars, barely gives Beethoven time to stretch out his lyrical limbs … and then it’s over. Glenn Gould has suggested a reason for this, a reason rooted in Beethoven’s emerging fascination with continuous form:

It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end … to make things all of a piece.

Nonetheless, Beethoven’s last movement takes off with a merry twinkle in its eye and a bustling accompaniment of steady 8th notes in the piano to keep every toe in the hall tapping in time. The opening theme of this sonata-form movement is derived from the first movement’s opening theme. Simply bursting with good humour and bonhomie, this movement manages to be both cute and coy by turns while constantly radiating a sunniness of disposition that even the mock-worry of its development section cannot efface.

 

Anton Webern
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 
11

Anton Webern presents us with among the most concentrated aesthetic experiences possible in music. Using the 12-tone technique of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in which complete statements of the 12 chromatic tones are presented as musical ideas, he writes works characterized by an astonishing density of musical thought. This is music of meticulous craftsmanship, music under a magnifying glass, in which seemingly small gestures take on great significance.

Webern’s Three Little Pieces Op. 11 are contained within a space of 9, 13 and 10 bars, respectively, and they take less than two minutes to perform. The outer movements are relatively slow and extremely soft (ranging between pp and ppp) while the second movement is loud and fast.

Catching the essence of music this fleeting requires concentrated listening. Only repeated hearings can really bring its minute details into focus. But one characteristic that might well be perceivable right away is how the piano and cello, like an old married couple, seem to complete each other’s musical thoughts.

When one goes up, the other goes down in response, creating a kind of symmetry in their dialogue.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata in G minor Op. 65

Chopin, a cello composer? Who knew? And yet the piano’s most famous composer actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, written between 1845 and 1846 for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).

In retrospect, however, the baritone range typical of the cello had always been a fertile ground for countermelody in Chopin’s piano music. Indeed some works, like the Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, or the Étude in C# minor Op. 25 No. 7, sound almost like transcriptions of works originally written for cello and piano. What most distinguishes this late sonata from those earlier “cello-like” works, however, is a new tendency towards increased chromaticism in the melodic line. Chopin’s sense of harmonic momentum is dizzyingly paced, especially in the first and last movements of this sonata.

Although Romantic in spirit, the sonata is written in the four-movement structure of the Classical era, comprising a sonata-form 1st movement, a 2nd movement scherzo, slow 3rd movement and rondo finale. The 1st movement’s opening theme might be described as a songful march, lyrical but inflected with pert dotted rhythms that add a slightly martial air to the melody’s unfolding. The second theme, by contrast, is a serene 10 notes (the first four on the same pitch) that exude a lyrical sense of repose, a repose not long held in this generally turbulent movement. The development is short, expanding on the rapturous potential of the 1st theme, in particular. Serious confrontation and drama occur only in the recapitulation, which draws much more vehemence from its material than the opening had done.

The 2nd movement scherzo is much lighter in texture and midway in mood between Mendelssohnian scamper and Brahmsian heft. Its lyrical trio is a nostalgic waltz to melt the heart of the crustiest old curmudgeon.

Lyricism of the simplest kind also prevails in the short 27-bar Largo third movement, but of a kind more vocal in its inspiration. Its widely spaced, nocturne- like piano accompaniment of eighth notes evokes a sense of calm that makes it the emotional pivot around which the whole sonata revolves.

The rondo finale reprises the martial inflections of the opening movement, but its dotted rhythms are now enlivened with a triplet energy reminiscent of the tarantella. In more lyrical sections the cello part is notable for the type of double- stop writing in 6ths one might expect in a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

Program Notes: Winterlude – Super Sunday with Alexander Melnikov

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22

Chopin’s funereal, passacaglia-like Prelude in C minor from his collection of 24 Preludes Op. 28 provides the theme for Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work for solo piano, his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, completed in 1903. Taking as his point of departure the prelude’s hymn-like harmonies and recurring opening motive (one note up, three notes down), Rachmaninoff creates a vehicle for displaying not only his pianistic prowess, but also his compositional moxie.

In these 22 rather abstract but extraordinarily inventive variations we discover a composer who channels the great pianistic traditions of the 19th century: the Slavic melancholy of Chopin, the march rhythms and poetic introspection of Schumann, the keyboard sparkle of Liszt, and the bass-heavy sound palette of Brahms. To these features Rachmaninoff adds his own penchant for multi-layered textures rippling with counter-melodies and understated imitative counterpoint.

This tendency is evident in the first three variations. Variation 1 features a shockingly spare, single line of melody noodling around the prelude’s harmonic pattern. This same melodic line then serves as the accompaniment figure in Variation 2, and the subject of a canon in Variation 3. Similar groupings of variations linked by common motivic patterns occur throughout, providing a sense of organic development within the work.

The developmental urge gets stronger with each variation, as does the inclination to show that the composer’s counterpoint classes at the Moscow Conservatory were not wasted. Variation 12 is an outright fugue, and Variation 14 a kind of chorale prelude, with Chopin’s theme singing out proudly in the tenor in quadruple note values, like the cantus firmus of a Renaissance mass movement. This variation presents unusual technical challenges, even to a pianist with the hand of a Rachmaninoff (who on a cold day, and without mittens, could stretch a 12th) since it is not always possible to play all of its four widely-spaced voices at the same time without using the nose – an expedient that, in the interest of maintaining decorum, we are counting on Mr. Melnikov to eschew.

Variation 15 is a Schumannesque scherzo that would have been at home in that composer’s Symphonic Études Op. 13. Schumannesque, as well, are the marches of Variation 19 and the triumphant Variation 22 finale that emerges in a C major as bright and sunny as the opening C minor theme was stoic and grim. The thrillingly suspenseful build-up of orchestral-style excitement that precedes this last variation, and the shimmering cascade of keyboard sound that ends it reveal, perhaps, how close in inspiration this work was to Rachmaninoff’s recently completed Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

In 1931 Rachmaninoff wrote his last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). This theme was, in fact, a traditional Iberian folk-dance tune, a slow sarabande called La Folia that Corelli had used in his Sonata Op. 5 No. 12 for violin and continuo and that many composers after him had used as well – Vivaldi, Bach and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff’s opening statement of the theme is disarmingly simple, emphasizing the pathos inherent in a melody that moves from phrase to phrase in a series of short sighs. On this theme Rachmaninoff actually writes two sets of variations separated by an Intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13, which begin by leaving the theme largely recognizable within a changing series of rhythmic guises before breaking free in Variation 5 to explore more punchy and energetic versions of its harmonic patterning. After another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9 momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At which point Rachmaninoff offers us a kind of champagne sherbet between courses to cleanse the sonic palette. An Intermezzo unfolds in a free improvisatory style that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of keyboard colour.

Our ears thus refreshed, we begin a second set of variations (14-20), with the theme presented to us once again, only this time lower down on the keyboard, and more richly harmonized. It seems to have aged, this melody, since we heard it last, at the work’s opening. It seems now to evoke the emotions of an aged individual looking back nostalgically on a life fully lived, but almost over.

After a tender daydream in Variation 15 Rachmaninoff returns to the muscular keyboard writing for which he is known. The final variations become increasingly animated, eventually erupting into heaven-storming walls of sound echoing back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

And yet, Rachmaninoff unexpectedly backs away from the tumultuous ending he seemed to be rushing headlong towards. Instead, he a drifts off into a coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the dramatic low pedal point that points implacably to its end.

Lovers of dark (really dark) chocolate will love the bitter but heroic fatalism of this ending.

 

Claude Debussy
Preludes for Piano Book 2

Debussy was the composer who freed Western music from the claustrophobic confines of “functional” harmony, the set of rules that for 300 years had governed which chords fit best with which others according to how well their bass notes got along. In Debussy’s world, the scale degrees named in the famous musical mnemonic by pediatric educator Julie Andrews (“Do, a deer, a female deer”) were of little import. What mattered to Debussy was the colour of each chord and the fleeting impressions that harmonic hues and shading could evoke in the mind of the imaginative listener.

Few works sum up Debussy’s practice in this regard more than his two sets of preludes composed between 1909 and 1913. The second set, like the first, features 12 short pieces, each with a descriptive title. These titles Debussy insisted on having printed, in parentheses, at the end of each piece rather than at the beginning, as if each were the whispered answer to a puzzle. Needless to say, this is music of infinite subtlety, much of it built up out of pianissimo murmurs swimming freely in a watery, finely pedalled haze of blurry piano tone out of which strands of melody occasionally float by the ear before disappearing off to the sonic horizon.

Brouillards (Fog) gives a better description of atmospheric conditions than any TV weatherman could provide, its streams of parallel chords in a polytonal buzz of overlapping sonorities evoking the diaphanous fabric of seasonal mists.

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) offers a picture of autumnal stillness, interrupted from time to time by the odd spate of falling leaves drifting gently down to earth.

La puerta del vino (The Gate of Wine) was inspired by a postcard of a gate in the Alhambra Palace sent to Debussy by Manuel Da Falla. It features a pervasive habañera rhythm, imitations of guitar strumming, and elements of flamenco singing in its description of Spanish life.

A book given to Debussy’s daughter, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, was the inspiration for Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) in which the airy elves of legend and fable put on their dancing shoes to float, flutter and hover like hummingbirds to the trills and tremolos electrifying the air of their sylvan surroundings.

In Bruyères (Heather) we find ourselves out on the moors of the Scottish countryside. Light touches of the pentatonic scale give this prelude its rustic feel, along with the evocative calls of a distant shepherd’s flute.

Debussy displays his sly wit and talent for mimicry in an affectionate portrait of the American comedian Edward Lavine, known to his public as General Lavine – eccentric. Lavine was apparently something of a clown, known for his comic impersonations of a wooden puppet and for playing the piano with his toes. Debussy puts the General’s strutting cakewalk theme comically in the bass, accompanied by by many vaudeville-style ba-duh-BOOM! drum-and-cymbal strokes.

Moonlight is the subject of La terrace des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences), conveyed through shimmering, softly glinting harmonies and the use of extreme registers to express the vast expanses lit up by the moon.

Ondine is a water sprite who tempts fishermen to enjoy her company in the depths of rivers and lakes. This prelude conveys her quick darting movements through the splashes of spray she churns up, as well as hinting at the danger lying in wait for the innocent fly-caster.

Homage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. is a humorous musical portrait of Samuel Pickwick Esq. (Perpetual President, Member of the Pickwick Club), the central character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick’s numerous quaint character traits are given a thorough going over in the many witty details of this piece, chief among them his pomposity, expressed in the opening quotation from God Save the Queen.

A Canope is a canopic jar, the recipient in which the internal organs of mummified individuals was held. The thought of this ancient object prompts a meditation on the death of an exotic civilization, evoked in the dead quiet of a ancient tomb.

Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) is the only prelude in the set without an extramusical title. Passing between meditative and toccata-like sections, this piece is written entirely in thirds alternating between the hands and foreshadows the arrival of Debussy’s piano études of 1915.

More virtuosic still is Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), set at a Bastille Day celebration slyly referenced in the distant strain of La Marseillaise heard in the closing bars. Whether you like Roman candles, spinning pinwheels, or exploding cannonballs of multi-coloured glitter, Debussy keeps you dazzled by sending the pianist off to light wicks at both ends of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

LEILA GETZ: HATS ‘ON’ TO TWO EXTRAORDINARY MUSICIANS!

Following their incredible journey through the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas in three concerts for the Vancouver Recital Society, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov were anxious to blow off excess steam and see something of Vancouver before they left for their next engagement in San Francisco.

So I, as the tour guide, and Allison Hart, one of the concert sponsors and the driver for the tour, set out with the musicians on Sunday after they had changed and packed up. We headed down to Granville Island where the plan was to take them on a quick tour of the market before driving through Stanley Park, and then continue on to West Vancouver, where we were to meet the rest of the Beethoven Project sponsors for dinner.

At Granville Island we re-fueled the musicians with strong coffee and literally ran around showing them the wonders of the market. Then, we walked over to the Net Loft into the craft gallery where Alexander made a purchase. Isabelle walked across the corridor and spied Edie’s Hat Shop. “Oh,” she said, “I love hats!”  In we went. The young salesman pointed out that the store would be closing in three minutes, to which Isabelle responded, “Oh, you may not want to close in three minutes as you have some serious customers!”

As it turns out, Isabelle has the perfect head and face for hats. Every single one she tried on looked fabulous on her. Meanwhile, Alexander (who is a HUGE fan of Fred Astaire) asked whether they carried Top Hats. And of course, as you can see from the photograph, they do!

We left Edie’s hats 45 minutes later having purchased a total of 6 hats among us. Now there was no time to drive through Stanley Park, but we were wide awake from our hat shop adventure and decided to wear our hats to dinner. We turned a few heads, and had a wonderful dinner.

Is this really why artists so enjoy coming to Vancouver? 

PROGRAM NOTES: THE BEETHOVEN PROJECT


Ludwig van Beethoven

The Ten Violin Sonatas

Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more appeared by early 1803, making a fairly compressed time span for a medium in which Beethoven was to write just one more in 1812. All but the tenth were written before the composer was 32 years of age. Yet all of them, to varying degrees, show Beethoven straining at the reins that in his early years still tied him to the genteel world of eighteenth-century classicism.

Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was usually the case with eighteenth-century works of this type, but it was hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. In these ten sonatas, Beethoven explores the ways and means of combining two voices of unequal sound mass into a dramatic partnership and coherent unity, “a colloquy of reciprocal enrichment,” in Louis Biancolli’s words.

Beethoven was renowned in Vienna for his prowess as a pianist, but he was also intimately familiar with the violin. He had taken lessons as a youth in Bonn, and later, at the age of 24, he sought further study with Ignaz Schupannzigh in Vienna. Hence, Beethoven was in an ideal position to explore the expressive potentialities and technical challenges of the violin as well as of the piano, some of which may sound “easy” to the casual listener, but which even today demand superior musicians to do them justice. Violins were undergoing changes in construction during Beethoven’s lifetime (longer neck, fingerboard and strings; higher bridge; greater tension on the strings), resulting in greater range and volume of tone. These did not go unnoticed by Beethoven, who made steadily increasing technical demands on the instrument.

Concertgoers wishing to delve deeper into the intricacies of these sonatas can be directed to books written by two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Joseph Szigeti (The Ten Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, 1965), and Abram Loft (Violin and Keyboard, Volume II, 1973).

Program 1 (May 26, 8:00pm)

Sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1

Right from the opening of the first sonata, there is a vigour and urgency to the music nonexistent in the many violin sonatas of Mozart and his contemporaries. Furthermore, there are numerous unconventional key relationships and excursions into remote tonalities. Notice that the violin, not the piano, first presents the lyrical theme that immediately follows the opening gesture. As for the new-found energy and urgency of the music, one can point to but a single pause for breath in the entire first movement (at the repeat of the exposition). The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set, while the finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and which incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Sonata no. 2 in A major, Op. 12, no. 2

“Where’s the beef?” Some concertgoers may remember this catchy slogan used for a promotion by a hamburger chain some years back. Similarly, one might well ask, “Where’re the themes?” in the first movement of Beethoven’s second violin sonata. In fact, there really aren’t any. Themes and melodies are not what this movement is “about.” Clearly, however, it is not the meagre musical material Beethoven works with that sets the sonata’s musical standard, but rather how he manipulates it. Not one listener in a hundred is likely to fault Beethoven for lack of a nice tune, such is the music’s jocular tone, harmonic sideswipes, impish humour and fascinating interplay of violin and piano. The slow movement is based on a lyrical, melancholic theme in A minor. Each of its two parts is announced by the piano, then repeated by the violin. The concluding movement is a high-spirited rondo with frequent humourous touches.

Sonata no. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, no. 3

The third sonata features a sense of grandeur, power and majesty found in few other works of Beethoven’s early years. In addition, the piano writing is often of near-heroic proportions, by far the most substantial in the first three sonatas, and scarcely equalled in any of the subsequent sonatas. The violin is far from idle, but much of the piano work might just as well have been channeled into a sonata for solo piano. The second movement constitutes the emotional centre of gravity in this sonata. This is the first adagio we encounter in the traversal of these sonatas, and one of the finest slow movements in early Beethoven. To Abram Loft, it is music of “wonderful, timeless tranquillity … a lovely bouquet, fragrant with gracious melody and luxuriant turns and roulades.” The finale is a rollicking, joyous rondo with a catchy if hardly distinctive main theme. Frequent contrasts of dynamics and register are a constant feature of the movement.

Sonata no. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

The ninth of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano is the grandest and most impressive of them all. It is by far the longest, is the most difficult, contains the richest textures, and to a greater extent than any other, puts both musicians on an absolutely equal footing throughout. Beethoven originally wrote his Kreutzer Sonata for a man named Bridgetower, but they had a falling out and Beethoven dedicated it instead to a certain Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the work and even called it “outrageously unintelligible.”

Of the ten sonatas, only the Kreutzer has a slow introduction, a feature usually reserved for grand, imposing works Throughout the opening movement the violinist is called upon to execute numerous chords in triple and quadruple stops (playing across three and four strings simultaneously). The theme of the Andante con variazioni, the longest movement in all ten sonatas, is lofty, elegant and noble in its simplicity. In the finale, the rapid, nearly continuous rhythmic pattern of long-short-long-short belongs to the tarantella, a dance that originated in Italy and, according to legend, served to counteract the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider.

Program 2 (May 27, 11:00am)

Sonata no. 6 in A major, Op. 30, no. 1

Op. 30 dates from1802, the year Beethoven began sketching the mighty Eroica Symphony, a work as far removed as could be imagined from the pervasive geniality and charm of the first of the Op. 30 sonatas. But the two works share a common characteristic in the compositional process at work in their opening subjects. In the sonata, piano and violin share the material, with each hand of the piano part a separate element in itself. This means there are actually three strands of melodic material at work, intertwining and coming together to form a coherent whole. Similarly, in the Eroica, cellos, violins and winds all contribute individual melodic strands to the complex first subject. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement is in ternary form, with the outer sections distinguished by the persistent dotted rhythm (long-slow-long-slow), the inner portion by gently rippling triplets in the accompaniment. The final movement is a theme and variations set in which violin and piano take turns in presenting the melodic strands of the theme.

Violin sonata no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2

Without question, this sonata is one of the grandest in the violinist’s repertory. It is a work of drama, passion, power and almost symphonic scope. The key of C minor immediately alerts us to music of serious import. Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, this is the “biggest” in feel and scope. It is also one of just three (Nos. 5 and 10 are the others) to boast four movements rather than the standard three.

The first movement opens with a darkly mysterious, almost menacing subject divided into several epigrammatic components, a subject eminently suitable for development later on. The strongly contrasting second subject in E-flat major, march like yet playful, is introduced by the violin. The slow movement is one of heavenly beauty. The scherzo movement truly lives up to its title (“joke”) – witty, playful, full of rhythmic quirks and rough humour. The finale returns to C minor and, unusually for a large-scale work that opens in the minor tonality, finishes in the minor as well. Relentless dramatic tension and emotional strife mark this uncompromising movement.

Sonata no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3

This has been dubbed the “charmer” of the Op. 30 sonatas. Like many other works in G major, it breathes the air of unspoiled nature, untroubled emotions, lively spirits and gaiety. Indeed, Beethoven composed the sonata during the pleasant summer days he spent in the beautiful woods outside Vienna at Heiligenstadt.

The first movement is in standard sonata form with two themes in contrasting keys, a development section and a recapitulation. The central movement is neither slow nor a minuet (Beethoven specifies the tempo of a minuet, not a minuet itself). It consists of a series of slightly varied restatements of the opening subject, all set to music of enchanting loveliness and rococo grace. The final movement, a rondo, bubbles along with vivacious good humour and a strong suggestion of a peasant’s bagpipe droning away in the bass.

Program 3 (May 27, 3:00pm)

Sonata no. 4 in A minor, Op. 22

Abram Loft assesses the A-minor sonata in these terms: “In no other Beethoven sonata will the duo find a greater challenge to its sense of drama, of timing, of musical repartee … It is one of the most exciting pieces that amateur or professional can play.”

There is much that is unusual about this sonata. It is one of just two in a minor key (the seventh in C minor is the other) Its relentless first movement is in 6/8 metre, unusual for an opening movement of a sonata, as is the tempo marking of presto. Still another unorthodox point to note is the introduction of a new theme (in F major) within the development section, and still another one (in A minor) at the juncture of the development and recapitulation. The playful second movement is neither a slow movement nor a scherzo, but combines aspects of both and supports three full themes. The rondo finale returns to the driving momentum of the opening movement, its urgent main theme, always initiated by the piano, returning frequently and unvaried while in between statements of this theme are found a wealth of episodes contrasting in mood, texture, key, dynamic level and register.

Sonata no. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (Spring)

In the Spring Sonata of 1801, we see Beethoven poised on the threshold of his second-period style. He has still not completely bid farewell to the genteel world of Classicism – graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance – yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and vigour, a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation.

This is the most popular of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It opens with a flowing theme of spontaneous lyricism and gentle radiance, suggestive immediately of the freshness and beauty of spring that has earned the sonata its nickname. The second movement is deeply felt, so much so that some listeners find in it an anticipation of some of Schubert’s most expressive pages.

Op. 24 is Beethoven’s first violin sonata to have four movements. The “extra” movement is extremely short (barely a minute), but it perfectly bridges the sublime simplicity of the second movement and the gracious lyricism of the finale. The finale is a more or less conventional rondo.

Sonata no. 10 in G major, Op. 96

A gap of ten years separated Beethoven’s tenth and final violin sonata from his ninth. The biggest differences between this sonata and its predecessor – easily observed when the two are played in tandem, are its more intimate and restrained tone, gentler sonorities, and the avoidance of drama and heroics.

Like the Kreutzer Sonata, the first movement of the tenth contains three themes, the first of which is imbued with the gentle warmth and grace. The slow movement presages Beethoven’s late style – an adagio of ineffable beauty and restrained exaltation. Here, writes violinist Abram Loft, the players are “as close to paradise as one can approach in this world.” The short and jocular Scherzo in G minor brings us down to earth from the rarefied heights of the previous movement. The finale is a theme and variations movement. The theme has a folksy quality, and proceeds with a gentle swagger in unbuttoned (Beethoven liked the term aufgeknöpft for such music) good humor. Beethoven toys with our expectations as the music makes little detours through changes of tempo and ventures into new harmonic regions, as if the composer were reluctant to bid farewell to his last violin sonata.

A growing apprecition: Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich

Melnikov and ShostakovichPerhaps it has been a deficiency in my musical education, but I have found it hard to warm to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.

Written in 1950-51 and influenced by Bach and in a lineage of prelude collections by Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, these works have generally remained on the outskirts of the repertoire.

This is changing however, in part due to the championing of Alexander Melnikov, who will give us a still rare opportunity to hear a significant portion of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues on November 13. This will certainly be the first time I will hear more than one or two of the prelude-fugue pairs at one time.

Because of Melnikov’s program, and more because I am turning pages for this performance, I thought it incumbent on me to learn more about this great composer’s magnum opus.

My new appreciation began with the arrival of Robert Markow’s programme notes. He wrote: “In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano literature.” You can read the full set of notes here.

Alexander Melnikov wrote in the liner notes to his own recording, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.” Hear more about Melnikov’s thoughts on Shostakovich in this video.

There is no doubt all of this is revealed in Melnikov’s 2010 recording, which has contributed to a rediscovery of the Preludes and Fugues and the next stage of my appreciation.

Played with “clarity” and “virtuosity and audacity” (The New York Times), the Neo-Classical elements of the pieces resound, and Shostakovich’s response to his self-imposed aesthetic restriction is endlessly inventive and inspired (imagine writing in a clearly defined tonal centre in the 1950s!).

Each listening of Melnikov’s recording exposes the depth and breadth of these bold works and, as suggested in The Guardian, “Alexander Melnikov makes you wonder why these works are considered monotonous or didactic.”

Indeed, I now have to wonder why it is we do not hear these works more frequently, and how it is they have been missing in my musical appreciation. That has all changed in the hands of Alexander Melnikov.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

Alexander Melnikov performs at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, November 13 at 3pm. Tickets are available from the VRS Box Office, call Cory at 604-602-0363. Tickets are also available from Ticketmaster either online at ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-2787 (service charges apply).

Program Notes: Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues

Dmitri Shostakovich: 12 Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87

Like many of the great composers before him (Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, among others), Shostakovich possessed the skills of a keyboard virtuoso, and might well have sustained a successful career as such. Among his prizes was one from the First International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (1927). But Shostakovich’s compositional talent also showed itself early. His graduation exercise from the Leningrad Conservatory, the First Symphony, catapulted him at the age of twenty to worldwide attention, and he decided to devote the bulk of his efforts to composition. Significantly enough, the First Symphony contained a prominent part for the piano. Shostakovich continued to write music for his instrument throughout his twenties – about half his output during these years was for or with piano – which he also performed. Thereafter, coinciding with the sharp reduction of his performing activity, he wrote only seldom for solo piano. Among the works of his later years was the monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, written in late 1950 and early 1951.

The inspiration came principally from Bach, as it has for similar sets from other composers: Hans Huber, Castelnuovo-Tedesco (for guitar duo) and Niels Viggo Bentzon for preludes and fugues together; Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich himself (Op. 34) for preludes alone. In 1950, Shostakovich was sent by his government as the head of a Soviet delegation to East Germany for the ceremonies surrounding the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the events was a piano competition in Leipzig, where Shostakovich sat on the jury. One of the contestants was the 26-year-old Tatyana Nikolayeva, whose playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier so impressed Shostakovich that upon returning to Moscow, he undertook to create a similar work himself. Unlike Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues, each of which proceeds up the steps of the chromatic scale alternating major and minor keys (C – C-sharp – D, etc.), Shostakovich’s (like Chopin’s) move through the so-called “circle of fifths,” which begins with C major and its  relative minor (A), then adds one sharp for G major/E minor, then two sharps, etc. (at this point the flat keys take over in reverse order, decreasing in number down to one – F major/D minor – where the cycle ends).

The first performance presented what amounted only to a teaser: Shostakovich offered four of the preludes and fugues at a recital on November 18, 1951 in Leningrad’s Glinka Hall. The cycle was not given as a unit until a year later when Tatiana Nikolayeva performed it at the same venue in two sessions, on December 23 and 28, 1952. There is conflicting evidence as to Shostakovich’s feelings about whether the 2½-hour cycle should be played complete in performance. He himself never did so, though he recorded all of it. He did often perform the preludes and fugues in groups of three to six, as have many other pianists, notably Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Selected numbers have been arranged for such diverse instruments as organ, accordion, double bass with piano and string orchestra.

In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of  twentieth-century piano literature. To Tatiana Nikolayeva, it is music “of great depth, of unsurpassed mastery and greatness. They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. …The breadth of images and characterizations is very great: from tragedy to humor, from gaiety to the grotesque.” Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers maintains that “if there is a single work among his large output that assures us that Shostakovich is among the handful of great composers [of the twentieth century], this collection is it.” And for tonight’s pianist, Alexander Melnikov, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.”

In an interview accompanying his recording of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Melnikov suggests that one of Shostakovich’s aims was to see what he could do with the forms beyond Bach, what he could do with material completely unsuitable as a fugal subject. Take for example the first fugue (C major), which employs only the white keys of the piano throughout, or the seventh (A major), whose subject is built entirely from a major triad. In the preludes too, there is in each one a sense of experimentation, of compressing a single idea into a few pages of music to see where it will go. Each one has a “message.”

NO. 1 IN C MAJOR: The cycle gets underway with a sarabande, a stately Baroque dance in slow triple meter with its characteristic rhythmic pattern. Chordal writing alternates with flowing chromatic passages. The fugal subject is built almost entirely from the intervals of the fourth and the fifth.

NO. 2 IN A MINOR: The Prelude is a toccata-like affair (“pure harpsichord textures,” says Melnikov), with a single line of rapid sixteenth-notes running in perpetual motion throughout. The Fugue has been compared to some of Shostakovich’s polkas for its jaunty, humorous mood. The five-note rhythmic cell upon which it is based recalls a jocular passage from the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.

NO. 3 IN G MAJOR: The stern Prelude sounds like its inspiration could have come from a liturgical chant, while the Fugue could not be more different in character – witty, playful, dancelike, and demanding virtuosity and crystalline clarity of execution to make its effect.

NO. 4 IN E MINOR: The Prelude is a three-part texture consisting of (1) ponderous, sustained octaves in the depths of the piano’s range; (2) a continuous, even stream of eighth notes, usually in the middle voice; and (3) a slower-moving melodic line that includes numerous “sighs.” (Bach associated E minor with the Crucifixion.) The Fugue is actually a double fugue. Two separate subjects are introduced in turn (the second in slightly faster tempo), then are combined fortissimo in a towering musical edifice.

NO. 5 IN D MAJOR: “A graceful, wistful dance-song over a lightly arpeggiated accompaniment” is how Wilfrid Mellers describes this Prelude. The Fugue consists of “a theme stuttering in repeated notes, with farcical clownish effect.”

NO. 6 IN B MINOR: A striking Prelude built on the double-dotted rhythmic figure (extra-long notes alternating with extra-short ones) flashes fire and energy in contrast to its Fugue, notable for a flowing, placid surface.

NO. 7 IN A MAJOR: The spirit of Bach hovers over the Prelude. Its meter of 12/8 (four groups of triplets) was far more common in the Baroque era than it is today. The fugal subject is based entirely on the notes of the tonic chord (A – C-sharp – E). This fugue might be considered Shostakovich’s “water music” inasmuch as the texture – glistening, sparkling, gently undulating – not to mention the continuous development of a single arpeggiated chord, bring to mind the opening scene of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold.

NO. 8 IN F SHARP MINOR: One of the briefest preludes sits beside the longest fugue by far of the twelve we hear tonight – nearly nine minutes in Melnikov’s performance. The Prelude is written in simple two-part texture, and in Shostakovich’s inimitable fashion combines a playful ambiance with a touch of the sinister. It is also the first prelude we have encountered to feature Shostakovich’s hallmark rhythmic pattern, short-short-long. The Fugue too incorporates this rhythmic figure into its fold. The subject is exceptionally long – nine measures – and thereafter unwinds in three-part texture to an unrelenting tread and highly dissonant harmony.

NO. 9 IN E MAJOR: In a reversal of the process found in the previous Prelude and Fugue, No. 9’s focal weight rests in its Prelude – longer by far than the Fugue. This Prelude is also notable for its extremes of range, which cover nearly the entire keyboard; three staves are required to notate it. The Fugue is the only one of the 24 in two voices only, and exudes an atmosphere of joy and exuberance. Many listeners hear in it strong reverberations of a Bach two-part invention.

NO. 10 IN C SHARP MINOR: Again the spirit of Bach informs this Prelude. In fact, it, as well as its Fugue, is often regarded as the most Bachian of the set. The words of Bach biographer Philipp Spitta regarding the C sharp minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-tempered Clavier might equally apply to Shostakovich’s in the same key: “…it is as though we were drifting rapidly over a wide ocean; wave rises over wave … as far as the eye can reach, and the brooding heavens bend solemnly over the mighty scene.”

NO. 11 IN B MAJOR:  The B major Prelude suggests an orchestral conception, particularly the jocular, light-hearted movements of Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9. For sheer, unabashed joy and an almost reckless sense of abandon, the Fugue is hard to beat.

NO. 12 IN G SHARP MINOR: The Prelude is written in passacaglia form (a method of composition in which a set of variations is constructed over a repeating bass line or chord progression). As the key of G sharp minor has five sharps, the meter for the Fugue is appropriately 5/4. The intellectual rigor with which Shostakovich creates a fugue from his angular, raw-boned subject is truly awe-inspiring. Melnikov calls it “the most harmonically complex fugue of the cycle so far, played at a breakneck pace, reaching an impossible degree of emotional strain and desperation. Thus, the stage is set for the culmination of the first volume.”

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

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