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Program Notes: Dover Quartet with Avi Avital

Sulkhan Tsintsadze

Six Miniatures for String Quartet and Mandolin (arr. Ohan Ben-Ari)

 The Soviets promoted the ideal of music rooted in the traditions of their native soil and in this regard it would be hard to find a composer more congenial to Soviet ideals than Sulkhan Tsintsadze, one of the leading composers of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Honoured throughout his long career for his prodigious output of operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works and film music, Tisintsadze is especially known in the West for his music for string quartet, above all his many sets of miniatures, each a picture of traditional life in the land of his birth.

Tsintsadze’s scores are remarkable for their wit and for the level of picturesqueness they achieve using just the standard effects of traditional string writing. In these short pieces, with their toe-tapping rhythms and melodies built up out of short repeated phrases, we hear the exotic sounds of traditional Georgian folk songs and imagine the colourful gestures of village dancing. Exhilarating glissandi convey the élan of the Georgian folk idiom and pizzicati the plucking of national stringed instruments.

In Shepherd’s Dance we hear a pastoral bagpipe drone in the cello and the fluty sound of the pan’s pipe in the strings higher up. The drone element is even more evident in the double-stops of the cello solo that opens the fighting song Satchidao, with its exotic Middle-Eastern-sounding scale pattern reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof.

We can imagine a group of whirling village dancers in the spiffy, almost breathless pace of Indi-mindi. Sentimental lyricism breaks out in Suliko, a waltz melody in sixths that wafts nostalgically over a light oom-pah-pah accompaniment. And it is in these lyrical moments that we hear Tsintsadze the film composer, writing for a popular audience.

 

Bedřich Smetana

Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life”

It was in 1874 that Smetana first began to hear high-pitched sounds and experience other auditory disturbances, unmistakable symptoms of the disorder known as tinnitus which within two years would take away his hearing entirely. It was thus as a completely deaf 52-year-old composer that he wrote his first string quartet in 1876, a string quartet with an autobiographical program referred to in its title: From my life.

The life he had led was marked by a string of personal misfortunes. Three of his four daughters had died in infancy and his wife had predeceased him, as well. And yet his professional life in music and his early experience of falling in love provided him with inspiring moments of real exaltation. These strongly personal emotions he expressed in a string quartet remarkable for its orchestral conception of sound and consequently its technical difficulty. In fact, it was initially judged to be unplayable, due to his frequent use of multiple-stops.

Despite its programmatic themes, this work displays the standard four-movement pattern of the traditional string quartet, with a sonata-form first movement, followed by a scherzo, a lyrical slow movement and a rousing finale.

The first movement opens with a depiction of the composer’s youth, a troubled period in his life when he was afflicted with powerful yearnings, expressed by the strongly attacked motives of the solo viola over hushed tremolos in the other instruments. The falling interval with which each motive abruptly ends stands emblematic of the struggles he will face and the misfortunes that will befall him. But present in this movement is also a potent force of optimism, expressed by the second theme in a placidly peaceful G major. Despite a development section full of fretting over the first theme, it is this more peaceful second theme that will dominate the recapitulation, balancing out in a quiet ending the worrying tone of the movement’s opening theme.

The dancelike character of the second movement scherzo is evident in its tempo marking: Allegro moderato a la Polka. Smetana confesses that he was fond of dancing, and composed a great deal of dance music in his youth. The tone here is unpretentiously upbeat, full of hops, skips and boisterous good spirits. And really now, is there anything more joyous than the sugary dominant 9th chord that opens this movement? The middle section trio, by contrast, with its soothing off-beat chords and Palm-Court-like insouciance, is total suavity from beginning to end – a tip of the hat, Smetana says, to the aristocratic circles he frequented as a young buck.

The slow movement Largo sostenuto pays tribute to the composer’s childhood sweetheart, Kateřina Kolářová, whom he married in 1847, and who died of tuberculosis ten years later. Beginning with a cello soliloquy that soulfully repeats the falling intervals of the quartet’s opening, this movement develops as a series of variations on two themes, sometimes lovingly enveloped in a nurturing accompaniment of adoring countermelodies, sometimes throbbing with drama and youthful ardour.

The Vivace final movement is indelibly stamped with the effervescence and natural vitality of Czech folk music, presenting passages of a strongly marked – even punchy– rhythmic character alternating with solo “lead breaks” by individual instruments. The music suddenly stops, however, as ominous tremolos prepare the way for a long-held ultra-high E in the first violin, representing the abnormal sound that Smetana began to hear in his ear as his hearing slowly disappeared. The movement then lurches slowly to its conclusion, recalling memories of themes past, until it fades into the very silence that marked the composer’s final years.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Chaconne from Partita in D minor for Violin BWV   1004

The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor stands at the summit of the violin repertoire, both for the technical challenges that it presents to the performer and for the monumental brilliance of its formal architecture.

At its core is a 4-bar pattern of chords, stated at the outset, that serve as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations that follow. Bach’s 4-bar thematic pattern comes in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar. There follow 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design. 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.

Avi Avital stands in a long line of transcribers of this work. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn arranged the work for violin and piano, while Busoni created the canonical version for piano solo that Benjamin Grosvenor played at his VRS concert in 2015. Not to mention, of course, the version that Andres Segovia created for guitar.

Each instrument or combination of instruments offers new possibilities for clothing the elegant structure of this work in new sonic garb. Some, like Busoni, have sought to expand its sound palette to match that of the organ. Brahms, on the other hand, conceived of its musical riches as capable of being contained within the small compass of the pianist’s left hand alone. It will be of great interest to see where Avi Avital takes this celebrated piece, sonically and interpretively, on the mandolin.

 

David Bruce

Cymbeline for String Quartet and Mandolin

David Bruce was born in Connecticut in 1970 but grew up in England where he received his academic musical training, graduating in 1999 with a Ph.D. in composition from King’s College London under Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He has received numerous commissions from Carnegie Hall and was composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House from 2012 to 2013. His latest opera, Nothing, often described as “a modern-day Lord of the Flies,” was premiered at Glyndebourne in February 2016 and will be performed in Aarhus, Denmark this year.

There is a directness of appeal in Bruce’s music that derives from the intriguing strangeness of the simple musical textures he creates, textures featuring exotic scale modes, engaging rhythms, wind-chime-like timbres, and above all a magical connection to intimate human emotion.

“Cymbeline” is an old Celtic word that refers to the Lord of the Sun. The composer’s first impulse in creating this work was an association that he intuited between the colour of the sun and the warm golden timbre of the mandolin and string quartet playing together.

The work is structured in three movements conceived as a temporal sequence of primal daily sun events (sunrise, noon, sunset) which the composer describes as follows:

The sun was one of the first objects of worship and it has been surmised that the idea of a holy trinity … relates to the three distinct positions of the sun: sunrise (father), noon (son), and sunset (spirit). Sunrise is “the father of the day”; midday represents the fullness of energy, the son; and sunset is a time for contemplation and reflection – the spirit. To me, these three states represent not just “father, son and spirit” but also perhaps, the reflection upon an action about to happen (sunrise), the action itself (noon), and the reflection on the action that happened (sunset).

Cymbeline was written especially for Avi Avital and is dedicated to him and his wife Roni, in honour of their recent marriage.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017

PROGRAM NOTES: AVI AVITAL


Avi Avital: Kedma

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

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

Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004

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

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

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

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

Yasuo Kuwahara: Improvised Poem

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

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

Maurice Ravel: Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera

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

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

Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

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

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

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

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

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

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances

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

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

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

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

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

Program notes by Donald Gislason, 2013.

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