Anton Webern | Vancouver Recital Society

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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: Apollon Musagète Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3

In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—a six-pack of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of self-entertainment in the homes of the upper classes in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice in the trade was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.

And so it was that when Beethoven finally decided in 1798 that it was time for him
to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.

The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from
that of its siblings. The D major Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 is the quiet one of the litter, the gentle introspective one, but surprisingly capable nonetheless of cutting up like a trickster when the circumstances are right. This quartet is bright and lyrical but not a show-off. There are no fugues or flashy variation movements, just a non-stop display of surpassing compositional inventiveness and contrapuntal skill.

The first movement Allegro opens unconventionally with the vocally conceived
leap of a 7th (A to G) played solo by the first violin. (If you don’t think a 7th is particularly singable, consider the first two notes of “There’s a place for us” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story.) This leap spawns points of imitation in the other instruments that seem to spring spontaneously, without fuss, from the very fabric

of the texture. There is, in fact, such an assured air of relaxed normality about this movement that its contrapuntal feats almost pass unnoticed. The second theme is a pulsing chordal subject in simple note values with a slight bit of oomph on the second beat. The one feature of this movement that does raise an eyebrow is its moderately substantial coda—a hint at Beethoven’s future fascination with lengthy postscripts.

The second movement Andante con moto is a cozy little rondo comprised of a principal theme and two contrasting episodes. It begins in close harmony with a songlike melody in even 8th notes delicately nuanced by chromatic inflections in the harmony. The mood of this movement never varies from its pose of poised thoughtfulness, even when passing through moments of reflection in the minor mode. Rather, it becomes ever richer in texture until finally reaching its climax in a pulsing stream of repeated 16th notes before slowly saying farewell to each of its constituent motives in a quiet farewell.

The Allegro third movement is a one-to-the-bar scherzo with a contrasting Minore middle section in place of a trio. Its mood is good-natured rather than overtly joking or rambunctious, as future Beethoven scherzos would turn out to be. The middle section picks up the pace with swirling runs in the first and second violins but this minor-mode merriment is tinged with the furrowed brow and secret sorrow of the Gypsy fiddler.

The quartet finally comes out of its shell in a Presto finale giddy with excitement and bubbling over with merriment. Its constantly bouncy rhythm and breathless pace make a joke out of every little ‘dumb’ pause—and there are many. Contrapuntal hi-jinx blend so effortlessly into the mix that even a thorny fugato section is tossed off like a walk in the park. Sealing the deal for Beethoven’s first four-voiced essay in musical wit is the ending, tossed off with the dry delivery of a stand-up comic.

 

Anton Webern
Langsamer Satz

Anton Webern is a composer known chiefly for his short, delicate, exquisitely concise atonal works written using the serial techniques developed in the early 20th century by what came to be known as the Second Viennese School, of which he was part—the ‘First’ School being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert a century earlier.

Celebrated as he is for the pristine, intellectually rigorous miniatures of his maturity,
we must remember that even this most cerebral of atonal composers was once young, and in love. And to express the torments and transports of young love there is nothing quite like good old tonality, especially the wildly yearning chromatic tonality of the late- Romantic period.

Webern’s utterly ravishing Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) for string quartet is deeply romantic (with a small r) and dates from June 1905, when the 21-year-old composer went on a five-day hiking tour of the picturesque Austrian countryside with Wilhelmine Mörtl, his cousin and future wife, with whom he was besotted.

Described by some as “Tristan und Isolde compressed into 11 minutes,” this work still counts as the longest that the famously laconic composer ever wrote. Perhaps because it was a student work—Webern had just begun studies with Arnold Schoenberg the year before—it was not performed publicly until 1962, when it was premiered by the University of Washington String Quartet at an international Webern festival in Seattle.

Longtime Webern wonks will no doubt note the sophistication of motivic manipulation in the work, especially the inversion of the opening theme that foretells one of the basic procedures of 12-tone composition. But for now let us take this work for what it was at its inception: the spontaneous creative outpouring of Young Anton in Love.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major, D. 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, it were vain to skirt the debate dividing rival Schubertian factions as to whether the mimeographic profusion of ideas in this composer’s works 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 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 involuntary dream-filled wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, still bemoan the way in which his practice of open-ended variation hijacks the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and betrays 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 on the ministrations of Morpheus. Here is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is a work of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo. Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand: to beef up the weight of sound to create an orchestral-style 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.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge 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. A lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Rocking back and forth within a small range, it does 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.

No respite from turmoil arrives with the Andante con moto, a movement of impressive dimensions and intense emotional drama. Beginning innocently enough with a dignified little minor-mode tune in the cello, more musing than mournful, it plunges six times into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return and fretting tremolos vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding.

It is left, then, for the Allegro vivace scherzo to lighten the mood and finally bring relief from the pall of anxiety and tension that has so far dominated the work. Continuous patterns of repeated notes mark this movement with a fleetness of foot that would soon become Mendelssohn’s trademark. Here the tremolos are written out in full, emphasizing their role as individual pulses of rhythmic intensity rather than furry blurs of sound. Antiphonal echo effects abound, with the barrage only interrupted by a delicious Ländler melody in the trio.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. The opening tarantella theme, glinting alternately between major & minor tone colouring soon gives way to a perfect parody of an opera buffa patter aria à la Rossini. This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

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