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Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)
The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.
Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. 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 the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.
His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.
These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. 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. 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.
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 Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253
Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.
Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.
Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.
The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.
The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.
Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24
In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme offered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.
The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.
It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)
Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying 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 owing 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 the actions and psychological states 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 mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)
In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.
His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re-baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.
Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.
The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.
All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.
Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?
Donald G. Gíslason 2018
Johann Sebastian Bach
GOLDBERG VARIATIONS BWV 988
Such was Bach’s mastery of his musical materials that he was often tempted to explore a particular genre or compositional technique in a systematic way by providing a quasi-exhaustive compendium of its possibilities. Fugue, for example, is represented in the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1744), both sets presenting a prelude and fugue in each of the major and minor keys, and in The Art of the Fugue (unfinished at his death), with its 14 fugues and 4 canons all derived from a single theme in D minor.
Similarly encyclopedic in scope and ambition is Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen, published in 1741 and known today as the Goldberg Variations. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century and in it, Bach displays his command of the popular musical styles of his day, the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, and the arcane skill of writing canons at intervals ranging from the unison to the ninth.
The work gets its name from an anecdote told by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) in his 1802 biography of Bach. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, we are told, was a young harpsichordist in the employ of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who frequently resided in Leipzig where Bach was Cantor of the city’s Thomaskirche. Among the young Goldberg’s chores was the task of easing the Count’s insomnia by playing to him from an adjoining room on the many nights when he found himself sleepless. The Count is said to have asked Bach for a contribution to Goldberg’s repertoire of night-watch pieces and the “Goldberg Variations” were born.
Setting aside the dubious compliment of commissioning a work expressly designed to induce sleep, musicologists have raised a collective eyebrow of skepticism at the numerous improbabilities in this account, noting how the title page of the first edition lacks a dedicatory inscription to the Count – in breach of established custom – and the troubling fact that when it first appeared in print, the young Goldberg was a mere stripling of 14.
After publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely neglected in the latter half of the 18th century. And they fared little better in the 19th, although Beethoven appears aware of them when composing his Diabelli Variations and Brahms his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. They entered the 20th century as the privileged domain of the feathery flock of harpsichordists, with Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who first recorded the set in 1933, as Mother Hen to the brood.
In the Golden Age of Pianism before the Second World War, the public was enamoured of big-name pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hoffmann, whose careers were predicated on concert programs filled with expansively emotional, sonorously room-filling works from the Romantic era. The scaled-down, intellectually concentrated sound world of the Goldberg Variations, with their ‘sewing machine’ rhythms, probing explorations of chromatic harmony and awkward hand-crossings, was considered too ‘antiquarian’ and too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire by most pianists. Until June 1955, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist walked into the New York studios of Columbia Records to record his debut album – an album that became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.
What Glenn Gould revealed, in a career bookended by his landmark recordings of the Goldberg Variations, was the emotional richness and feverish excitement that lay hidden in this much-neglected work. Like an art-restorer cleansing the Sistine Chapel of the grime and haze that had built up over centuries, in Gould’s 1955 recording brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and a kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, accomplished by the fingers alone. In his 1981 recording, in which the tempo of each variation is regulated by a “constant rhythmic reference point,” he revealed the intellectual depth of the work, and the breadth of interpretive possibilities that it offers to the performing pianist.
Glenn Gould single-handedly placed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the standard repertoire – and not only of the piano. According to the Goldberg Variations Discography website, since 1955, there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, including versions for organ, string trio, and saxophone quartet. While a performance by a historically informed recorder ensemble would no longer be a novelty, a breathless world has still not heard this work on kazoos or in car commercials. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.
The theme that Bach wrote for his variations is in G major, identifiable as a sarabande tendre by its stately rhythmic profile, recurring emphasis on the second beat of bar, and highly expressive style. Floridly ornamented in the French manner, its 32 measures unfold in the traditional two-part form of a dance movement. A 16-bar opening section leads from the tonic (G major) to a concluding cadence in the dominant (D major), and is then repeated. The second 16-bar section, also repeated, begins in the dominant and works its way back to end on a final cadence in the tonic. The repeated sections, both in the aria and in the variations, provide an opportunity for the performer to vary the performance by means of changes in dynamics, articulation, and ornamentation.
The harmonic rhythm of the Aria is deliberately slow – one chord to the bar – which allows for maximum freedom in spinning out a wide variety of variations, since these are based not on the melodic content of the Aria, but rather on its bass-line and underlying harmonies, in the manner of a chaconne.
There is a large-scale symmetry in the way that Bach arranges his variations, reflecting that of the Aria itself. First of all, the set is rounded out by a repeat, at its conclusion, of the Aria with which it began. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves, the first half ending on an enigmatic open 5th that concludes the plaintive Variation 15, the second half beginning with a bang on a robust G-major chord that begins the French overture variation, No. 16. (Many a performance will see a pause inserted at this juncture, emphasizing the contrast between the two halves of the work.)
Thirdly, the 30 variations are organized into ten groups of three, each group containing: (1) a dance or genre piece; (2) a virtuoso display piece – bright in mood, and most often featuring a number of hand-crossings; and (3) a two-voice canon, which is to say a round, in which a melody is accompanied by itself, entering a set number of beats after its initial appearance, and beginning a set interval above its initial note. In keeping with Bach’s systematic approach, these canons – spaced out every three variations – begin at the unison and progress to the ninth in Variation 27 (the only canon not accompanied by a running bass line by way of harmonic support). Such a layout ensures variety in the succession of variations, and is aided by the extraordinarily wide range of meters used: 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8, 9/8 etc. There is even one variation, No. 26, in which one hand plays in 3/4 while the other is in 18/16.
The display-oriented virtuoso variations feature two kinds of hand-crossing: the Italian type, à la Scarlatti, in which one hand crosses over and above the other to catch a note perilously distant from its home turf (e.g., Variations 5 and 14); and the French type, à la Couperin, in which the running melodic lines of the two hands cross over each other in the same patch of keyboard terrain, risking a digital derailment of both (e.g., Variations 8 and 11). Usually, the latter are indicated by Bach as being played on both manuals of the harpsichord, but alas! – such an expedient is not available to the struggling pianist.
The inclusion of canon variations helps to mask the recurring regularity of the Aria’s four-bar phrases and ground bass, repeated in various degrees of elaboration in each variation. Moreover, the canons are not always straightforward rounds. Variations 12 and 15 each feature a canon inversus, in which the leading voice is accompanied by itself – turned upside down!
* * *
The emotional heart of the work comes in Variation 25 in the minor mode, described by Wanda Landowska as the work’s “crown of thorns.” At an Adagio tempo, it is the longest of the set, although it has the same number of measures as the other variations. Its extraordinary expressiveness and aching beauty derives from the combination of its plangent melodic leaps, agonizing chromaticisms and halting syncopations.
After this variation begins a build-up in energy as the work races towards its climax, with sonorous written-out trills invading the inner voices of Variation 28 and hammering fists of chords chopping between the hands in Variation 29. According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with a musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria. Simultaneously playing or singing melodies that fit together harmonically – often songs on distinctly salty, secular themes – was a congenial and witty pastime at Bach family get-togethers. A modern equivalent might be playing Dvorak’s Humoresque in G flat while singing “Way, down upon the Swan-eee River.”
The two overlapping folk tunes that Bach shoe-horns into service over the ground bass of his Aria are the urgent love lyric:
Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her
I have been away from you so long, come here, come here
and the anti-vegetarian anthem:
Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I would have stayed longer
Coming at the very end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service.
* * *
It remains only for the Aria to echo once again in our ears, repeated note for note as it was at the beginning. This gesture of return, too, has spiritual echoes that are intuitively felt, but difficult to put into words.
Bach inhabited a world made comprehensible to him by his Lutheran faith, a world in which the divine presence penetrated every piece of Creation. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach paints in sonic form the secular and the sacred world – the secular through the music of popular genres and dance forms, and the divine through canons and the miraculous geometric transforms of their musical themes.
The melodic voice of the Aria, returning once again to our ears, seems small and vulnerable with respect to what had come before, and we with it. In this return to the work’s beginnings, we hear – and share – the humble voice of a pious man before his God.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018
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.
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.
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
A Bit of History
Few scholars doubt that Western music was better off for the release of a certain “Bach, Johann Sebastian” from the county jail in Weimar where he had languished, in unsuitable company, for the better part of a month in the autumn of 1717. Court organists can be a stroppy crew at the best of times, and court music directors even more so. But Bach, court organist and music director at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, had pushed ducal patience to the limit.
The cause of all this workplace turmoil was a job offer that Bach had received from the Duke’s brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. In his rush to pack his bags and cancel his magazine subscriptions, it appears that Bach had failed to observe the finer points of court etiquette – like getting official permission to leave – and several weeks in hoosegow was Officialdom’s response.
Now, readers of a no-nonsense mindset will no doubt be wondering just where all this is leading, and the answer is simple: it leads to the six suites for solo cello that Bach composed at the court of Prince Leopold in or around 1720.
The Prince, you see, was a Calvinist. He had no need for the type of liturgical warbling that composers at Catholic courts were required to produce en masse, as it were. But the Prince was indeed a music-lover. He is said to have played the harpsichord, the violin, and perhaps also the viola da gamba. When the orchestra at the court of Prussia was dissolved in 1714, Leopold eagerly scooped up the best orchestral players to form the core of his own musical establishment and made instrumental music the centrepiece of his princely entertainments.
Bach’s move from Weimar to the court of Prince Leopold, then, pointed his compositional activities firmly in the direction of secular music, and it was to his tenure as the Prince’s Kapellmeister from 1717 to 1723 that we owe such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and the Six Suites for Solo Cello.
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No autographed manuscript of the cello suites has survived, although numerous copies were made, the most authoritative being that of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, made c.1730. After Bach’s death, these works seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century these works were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.
All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Having been intrigued by a 19th- century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began to study the cello suites seriously and performing them in public. Then in 1936 he recorded Suites 1 & 2 at the Abbey Road Studios in London and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.
From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world and Casals’ recordings from the 1930s are still an important point of reference for cellists performing today, alongside another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.
The Baroque Dance Suite
Bach’s time at the court of Anhalt-Köthen had one lasting influence on his compositional life: it instilled in him a love of the dance, as evidenced by the number of dance suites he composed while there.
The Baroque suite, a collection of dances all in the same key, was the ideal DJ party mix for an evening of toe-tapping entertainment among the European middle to upper classes with a taste for international musical culture. In its standard form it presented a buffet-style sampling of the major musical styles of Europe: the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante (or its peppier Italian variant, the corrente), the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue.
Additional optional dances known as galanteries were often added to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. Among these insertions were the courtly minuet (or menuet in French), the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.
All of the dances following the prelude are composed in binary (two-part) form. The task of the first part is to find its way to the key of the dominant (five scale tones up from the home key) and land on a satisfying cadence there in its final bar. The job of the second part is then to find its way back to the original key and lay down an even more satisfying cadence – a kind of “Honey, I’m home!” gesture – to let you know that the piece is now finally over. The fact that each of these two parts is normally played twice seemed to matter little to the Baroque ear.
One other practice worthy of note is that of returning to the first of the minuets, gavottes or bourrées after playing the second (contrasting) one, giving a rounded A-B-A form to this brace of optional inserted dances.
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Dance suites were a popular genre of keyboard music in the Baroque period but writing for a solo instrument like the cello, that could play only a single melodic line, posed distinct challenges. Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.
But hold on. How do you play harmonies – which is to say chords – on an instrument that only plays a single melodic line? Multi-string chord-playing is possible, of course, but writing multiple stops in every bar is a sure way to send your performer into physio looking for multiple finger splints. The answer is to imply the harmonies you want your listener to hear by slyly emphasizing – and frequently returning to – important fundamental chord notes and tendency tones so that one actually begins to hear a multi-voiced harmonic structure beneath all the fancy filigree. This is how harmonic tension and anticipation is created and when done well you find yourself expecting a certain chord pattern to follow another one – even if neither is stated outright.
This the monetary magic of Quantitative Easing applied to harmonic voice-leading.It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand, this aural perceptual “dance within the dance.”
A Few Recommendations
While every listener will have his or her favourites from among the 42 individual dance movements in this collection of suites, the following have etched their way into my musical memory in a way that I cannot, in all honesty, fail to mention.
The opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in G has almost become synonymous with Baroque cello music itself. Its nobility of sentiment far transcends what one might expect to admire in a simple repetitive pattern of broken chord figures and connecting scales. The key of G is important here, as the bottom two strings, low G and the D above it, are open strings on the cello and Bach plays to the natural resonance of these two strings in crafting this prelude. The result is a rocking, undulating pattern of tones that evokes a sense of being at peace with the world.
Bach’s sense of sonic resonance is operating at a high level, as well, in the massive build-up of sound in the Prelude of the Suite No. 3 in C major, but this one puts you through the ringer. It features the same rocking pattern of wide-stretching broken chords, made all the more sonorous by the stabilizing presence of the low G used as a pedal tone beneath increasingly dissonance harmonies striving above it.
For sheer grit and dogged resolve it would be difficult to beat the headlong thrust of the Courante from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. This dance turns the cello into a veritable street fighter with bravado to spare. The perky lilt of the Courante from the Suite No. 6, however, makes this same dance form into a real toe-tapper by simply arranging 8ths and 16ths in the right pattern of leaps and scales.
Among the sarabandes, that of the Suite No. 2 D minor wins the prize for wringing the greatest amount of expression out of a single, slow melodic line. But the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C minor is memorable in a different way. Consisting entirely of 8th notes leaping widely over the entire range of the instrument, it manages nonetheless to tell a gripping story full of harmonic tension and much anticipated tension release.
There really is no contest among the galanteries. The Bourrée from the Suite No. 3 in C major has been a favourite since my early adolescence, probably because of the number of popular arrangements that have been made of it. Its easy- going mood and self-evident harmonic drive make it the sort of thing you hum to yourself in the shower. Almost as hummable is the Bourrée from the Suite No. 4 in E flat, with its wonderfully symmetrical phrases.
The gigue with the street cred to really jig it up big time is the one from the Suite No. 2 in D minor. The huge leaps in this movement give this dance movement a specially memorable swagger that stays in the memory long after it has finished.
And finally, a special note of admiration is due to the cellist himself, who in the Suite No. 6 in D will be playing, on a four-stringed cello, a piece originally written for a five- stringed instrument!
Donald G. Gíslason 2016
In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.
The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.
The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.
Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.
Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.
His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.
The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.
Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade, which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.
The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.
There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.
The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.
The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.
What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.
A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.
The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.
The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.
This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.
Donald G. Gíslason 2016
Sonata for solo violin in G minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them), and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed. Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist.
Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27, after hearing a concert by the violinist Josef Szigeti, in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the style of contemporary violinists whom he knew. The Sonata No. 1 in G minor was dedicated to Szigeti himself, a scholarly, intellectual kind of player, well known for his performances of unaccompanied Bach. And, in fact, the movement structure of this first sonata of the Op. 27 series bears much in common with that of Bach’s own solo violin sonatas.
The opening of the first movement, despite its modernist harmonic vocabulary, is texturally very reminiscent of the triple- and quadruple-stop chordal texture that Bach used in his slow movements (e.g., the opening movement of the C major sonata that follows), with imitative melodies nestled inside the chordal architecture. This Bachian imitative texture alternates in the course of the movement withmore rhapsodic passages, rife with hair-raising technical difficulties. Noteworthy at the end of the movement are the tremolo double stops played sul ponticello.
Most Bachian of all in this sonata is the Fugato second movement, which features two-voice fugal-type entries in regular alternation with episodes in contrasting textures. Straining at the outer limits of violin technique are the six- (yes, you read that right, six) note chords on the final page.
The Allegretto poco scherzoso, marked amabile, is certainly likeable, to be sure. Its predictable, almost whistle-able tune, featuring a coy triplet figure imitated between the top and bottom layers of the texture, might even set your foot a-tapping. Its contrasting sections are indeed just that: one of them in parallel fourths and fifths is strongly reminiscent of Debussy.
If a Baroque model were to be proposed for the brashly rhythmic Allegro fermo last movement, it would have to be the equally strutting Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite No. 5. Operating under the premise that one note should never be used when three would do, Ysaÿe ends his sonata with a burst of blunt rhythmic energy that pays homage to the hemiola patterns of Baroque rhythm, while fully engaging the aspirations of the modern virtuoso violinist.
J. S. Bach
Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006, completed sometime before 1720, reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitationof the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillful control of melodic lines and impressive large- scale musical architecture.
Strangely enough, these pieces, which form the bedrock of the modern violin repertoire, were virtually unknown until violinist Joseph Joachim began playing them towards the end of the nineteenth century. The recordings he made of some of them in 1903, available on You Tube, make for fascinating listening.
The Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, stands apart from the set by its sheer scale. Written in the four- movement pattern of the sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow- fast), its first two movements are paired as a prelude and fugue while its last two present the violin in the roles of lyric singer and virtuoso performer.
The Adagio that opens the work features a pervasive dotted rhythm. This droning uniformity of this rhythmic pulse, while giving the movement an air of solemnity, also serves to throw into relief the non-rhythmic elements at play in this movement (e.g., how the amount of sound issuing from the instrument expands dramatically within a few bars from a single note to a full quadruple-stop chordal texture). With rhythmic variety largely factored out of the listening experience, the ear is all the more drawn, as well, to how the harmonic patterns of tension and release propel musical interest forward. The well-known Prelude in C major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier features just this type of rhythmic uniformity, used in the same way.
The mighty jaw-dropping fugue that follows is where unwary listeners of a certain age are advised to keep a close grip on their dentures. At 354 measures, this surely must count as one of the longest fugues ever written. Its fugue subject is taken from the opening phrase of the chorale, Komm, heiliger Geist, and its countersubject is a series of evenly descending chromatic half notes – at least that’s how it starts out. About halfway through, Bach ups the intellectual ante in a passage marked al reverso, in which the fugue subject and its countersubject look in the mirror and suddenly become the inverse of what they started out to be: the countersubject now climbs by chromatic half notes, and every note of the subject is the mirror opposite of what it was before. A literal repeat of the opening fugal exposition rounds off the work, providing structural balance to its musical architecture.
Lyric relief comes in the Largo, a simple aria sung out in a two-voice texture with balanced phrases and with a clear harmonic underpinning. The last movement, Allegro assai, is a tour de force of implied part-writing, spinning its two- and three-voice textures at dazzling speed out of a single running line.
From Signs, Games and Messages
Signs, Games and Messages is a cycle of musical aphorisms which Hungarian composer György Kurtág has been amassing for decades, a collection which he is constantly revising and adding to. These brief musical thoughts have been compared to short “diary entries” but their intensity is anything but casual. As a fervent admirer of both J. S. Bach and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Kurtág uses the very brevity of these emotionally raw, often playful pieces to hint at a more timeless dimension of existence.
In the words of the American composer Stephen Eddins: “Each movement takes a striking, attention-grabbing idea,plays with it very briefly and then moves on before it wears out its welcome.”
Sonata for unaccompanied violin
This work was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin (1916- 1999) and premiered by him in 1944 at a concert inCarnegie Hall, attended by the composer. A “fiendishly difficult work” is how the conductor Antal Dorati described it. Menuhin himself confessed that he blanched when he first saw the score: “it seemed to me almost unplayable,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The chief difficulties of the piece result not just from the thickness of its multiple-stop texture and unconventional harmonic vocabulary, but also from the densely contrapuntal writing that characterizes much of the score. As the writer of one doctoral dissertation on the work’s thorny technical challenges dryly observed: “It is not very common for violin players to practice dissonant double- stops such as major and minor seconds, tritones and ninths, in their daily practice routine”.
Given the fiercely contrapuntal nature of the texture, it should not be surprising that the shadow of Bach hovers majestically over the work as a whole. Its overall design in four movements – with a fugal second movement, a lyrical third movement, and a fleet-paced fourth – parallels that of works such as Bach’s Sonata in C major, BWV1005. Moreover, the stately rhythm of its opening Tempo di ciaccona pays tribute to the famous chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.
The first movement is not a chaconne, however. The term merely refers to the pace of the movement, not its formal design. It is, in fact, in sonata form, with a descending melodic pattern as its second theme and a development section much obsessed with the double-dotted rhythmic figure of the opening.
The second movement has been described as a “fugal fantasy” rather than a strict fugue. Characterized by Menuhin as “the most aggressive, even brutal music,that I play,” this movement gives the measure of how radically different Bartók’s take on fugal procedure is from the Baroque view of the genre as an ingenious Times crossword puzzle in music.
The third movement, Melodia, is a lyrical modernist aria in A-B-A form that never rises above the dynamic level of mezzo piano. The opening section is monophonic, its melody haunted by eerie echoes in harmonics. The contrasting B section is largely written in double stops with a near-constant flutter of tremolos.
The last movement is a rondo which alternates a moto perpetuo in sixteenth-note motion with sections of a more varied rhythmic and textural character. Given the acerbic harshness of the harmonic vocabulary in this work, the question has been asked: is the pure G major chord that ends this movement ironic?
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
Johann Sebastian Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Bach composed suites for keyboard, for various solo chamber instruments, and for full orchestra, each comprising a varied and aesthetically balanced collection of dance movements written in the fashionable style of his day. The harmonic task given to each two-section dance is a simple one: to move, in the first part, from the home key to the key of the dominant, five notes up, and then in the second part, to return back to the home key, with each section played twice.
The moderately paced Allemande that opens this suite exudes an air of quiet assurance and harmonious calm. It is the most “conversational” of the movements in the suite, its walking bass supporting two upper voices that circle and twine round each other like two old friends who complete each other’s sentences. Beginning unusually low, the first half moves towards the middle register, while the second half begins correspondingly high and descends to the mid- zone of the keyboard.
In the Courante we move to triple metre, and a livelier pace. The single upper line moves in a continuous stream of running triplets while its jogging partner in the bass skips in time to it below. The stately Sarabande that follows restores a mood of ceremonial propriety as the hands take turns echoing the opening motive, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar.
The galanteries, or optional dances that precede the finale, are usually performed in the following order. First is the Gavotte, which in contrast with the smooth running figures of the preceding dance, moves by a succession of little leaps, imitated between the hands. A much longer second Gavotte follows, with an unusually wide variety in phrase lengths, for a dance movement.
The Air features a continuous texture of running notes, with a lively imitative dialogue between the voices in the second half. The Minuet moves in bite-sized two-note groups echoed between the hands, which gives it a sense of courtly daintiness not shared by its rougher country cousin, the Gavotte.
The real toe-tapper comes at the end of the suite in the Gigue, the most emphatic and rousing of all the dance movements. Displaying more leaps than a skateboarder’s trick set, this rollicking finale follows traditional Baroque practice of inverting the opening motive at the start of its second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57
The sonata known to history as the Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s most emotionally charged and “edgy”
compositions, a work that – in its outer movements especially – pushed piano music to new extremes in dynamics, in technical difficulty, and in sheer expressive power.
Beethoven’s choice of key, F minor, allowed him to write for the full range of the piano of his day, from its lowest note (F1 in the bass) to its highest (C7 in the treble), both of which appear prominently in the score. Extreme as well is the economy of musical material used. As he was to do in the great C minor Symphony to follow, Beethoven constructs the entire compositional edifice of his first movement out of a small number of primal musical materials, all presented on the first page.
The sonata opens in a conspiratorial whisper, the furtive dotted rhythm of a rising F minor arpeggio finishing in a trill in the upper register, more eerie than decorative. The entire phrase is then repeated a semitone higher, in G-flat, introducing the Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd degree of the scale) that will haunt the entire movement. Completing the motivic line-up is a short knock-on-the-door motive in the bass, ominously tut-tutting this Neapolitan ascent with a corresponding semitone descent, and suspensefully setting up the explosion of echoing cannon- fire chords that begin the movement’s emotional journey in earnest. After a transition section buzzing with repeated notes, a calmer second theme appears in the major mode, but its dotted rhythm and restless triadic roaming show it to be merely the flipside of the first theme, as if Beethoven were playing bad-cop/good-cop with the same thematic material.
There are no formal repeats in this sonata-form drama: the emotional intensity is kept at fever pitch throughout the exploratory modulations of the development and the triumphant recapitulation in the major mode. But this is not the end. As in the C minor Symphony, this first movement is massively end-weighted in an extended coda that reaches its emotional climax in a virtuoso cadenza spluttering with rage and apocalyptic fury. Its pianississimo ending, fluttering with menace into the distance, merely recedes from, rather than resolves, the musical torment burning at its core.
No greater contrast could be imagined than that presented by the second movement, an emotionally stable, harmonically rock-solid set of variations, each with its own repeat. Far from ranging over the full expanse of the keyboard, its solemn melody spans barely a handful of notes in the mid- range. Melodic interest is thus concentrated in the bass line, but as the variations progress, it gradually filters upward into increasingly elaborate patterns of decorative detail in the upper register. Then just as the movement reaches its cadential close, a harmonically destabilizing diminished 7th chord mysteriously steps in to replace the final tonic harmony. Strident repetitions of this chord in a higher register trumpet the breaking news that the last movement is at the gates, set to begin – without a pause.
In this last movement the feverish restlessness of the first movement returns in a moto perpetuo of continuous sixteenth notes, so hell-bent on its mission that its “second theme” is barely distinguishable from the first, merely moved up into the key of the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher. As in the first movement, frequent flecks of Neapolitan harmony add a dark glint to the harmonic mix in both key areas.
Where new motives and punchy countermelodies do emerge is in the development section, which is perhaps why it, along with the recapitulation, is given a repeat. The work ends with a presto coda described as a “demonic czárdás,” stomping, skipping and finally racing to its finish in a whirlwind of F-minor broken chords cascading from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.
Robert Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2
Two artistic influences flutter over Robert Schumann’s second published work, an interconnected cycle of twelve dance pieces appearing in 1831 under the title Papillons (i.e., “Butterflies”). The first is the piano music of Schubert, especially his dance pieces and variations, which intrigued the young composer with their “psychologically unusual connection of ideas.” The second is the work of German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, with whose fanciful writings Schumann became utterly besotted in his student years in Leipzig while studying law.
It is, in fact, the scene of the masked ball at the end of Richter’s novel Flegeljahre (1804) that provides the dramatic “setting” for the cycle, a scene in which two brothers, in love with the same woman, vie to win her heart amid the gaiety and varied musical offerings of a social evening with dance orchestra.
These brief pieces, most of which are waltzes, manage to fit a maximum of drama within their diminutive formal frames. Eyebrow-raising is the occasional use of the minor mode in this collection of generally festive dances, as well as the frequent presence of two wildly contrasting moods within the same piece – features which hint at the testosterone- soaked rivalry between the two brothers. Noteworthy as well is how the personalities of the rival brothers in Richter’s novel – one dreamy-eyed and introspective, the other passionate and action-oriented – parallel the two alter-egos that Schumann was to develop for his own split musical personality: Eusebius and Florestan.
Most clearly narrative is the final dance in the set, which opens with a quotation of the Grossvatertanz (Grandfather’s Dance), a centuries-old tune traditionally played at the end of wedding celebrations. Against the backdrop of this tune, Schumann recalls the opening waltz as the clock tolls repeatedly to signal the end of the ball. The final cadence features a dominant 7th chord that is peeled up from the bottom to leave only its top note sounding, before the final chord brings a quiet close to this kaleidoscopic evening of musical nostalgia.
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1
The nocturne, popularized in the early 19th century by the Irish pianist John Field, became in the hands of Chopin one of the most characteristic genres of the Romantic era. Typically featuring an Italianate cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment of widely spaced chords in the left hand, it sought to evoke a dreamy nighttime mood through its slow harmonic rhythm and the atmospheric use of pedaling effects over recurring drone tones.
This nocturne, one of the last published by Chopin during his lifetime, seeks the same goal, but by different means. More contrapuntal in texture, it features a harmonically active bass supporting a vocal line that unfolds in an even flow of eighth notes, with overlapping phrases that avoid clear and unambiguous cadences in pursuit of the Romantic ideal of the “endless melody”.
Its middle section grandly widens the range between melody and bass while venturing further afield in its modulations before returning to the opening material, thrillingly ornamented with chains of trills and melodic filigree. A longish coda features orientally-tinged scalar elaborations ranging widely over the keyboard which lend end-weighting to the work as a whole.
Frédéric Chopin: Étude in A flat, Op 25, No. 1 Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 Étude in C# minor, Op 10, No. 4
The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), along with the Trois nouvelles études which he contributed to the Méthode des méthodes (1839-40) of Fétis and Moschelès stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play.”
It is easy to imagine why the Étude in A flat, Op. 25, No. 1 is known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment (all the rest). Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.
The Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 is the “ugly duckling” amongst the Études. To each attack in the right hand is
attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.
The Étude in C# minor, Op. 10, No. 4, a fiery and aggressive moto perpetuo of small running figures that change hands every few bars, is one of the longest of the Études. Bristling with chromatic inflections and peppered with sforzando accents, it makes the arrival of a stable key centre a major event on the last page of the score.
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31
The scherzi of Chopin have little of the tripping, skipping, good-humoured jesting of the genre created by Beethoven, and only the last of them, the Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, displays any of the mischievous scamper and effervescent buoyancy of the models offered by Chopin’s contemporary, Mendelssohn. Rather, these are big-boned works, projecting pianistic power and lyrical intensity with a directness and confidence very much at odds with the popular image of Chopin as the delicate performer of perfumed salon pieces.
What links them, perhaps, to their forebears is not only a broadly conceived ternary (A-B-A) form, but also a certain mercurial volatility of mood and a desire to entertain wildly contrasting emotions not just between sections, but within them.
The Scherzo in B flat minor, composed in 1837, is a perfect example. It opens with a dramatic exchange between a whimpering triplet figure and an explosive salvo of raw piano resonance, only to be followed by an ecstatic exclamation arriving from the extreme ends of the keyboard, which then in turn morphs into a yearning, long-lined lyrical melody singing out over a sonorously rippling accompaniment in the left hand.
The middle section begins in a mood of quiet elegy, but gradually is persuaded to emerge from its introspection into a lilting three-step waltz, accompanied at every turn by an attentive little duplet-triplet figure in the alto. It is this coy little waltz tune that will build up in urgency and sonority sufficient to motivate the return of the dramatic musical gestures that opened the work. A coda pulls and tears at this material to lead it to a triumphant conclusion in D flat major, the key to which it had always been drawn throughout its course.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
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.
Program Notes: Benjamin Grosvenor
J. S. Bach: Five transcriptions
Benjamin Grosvenor opens his program with a series of piano transcriptions, a genre that was wildly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then went out of fashion, and is now making something of a comeback. Transcription – the transferal from one medium to another – is as old as music itself. Many of our greatest composers – Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and a host of others – practiced it. “The beauty of the transcription,” writes critic Andrew Farach-Colton (Gramophone, July 2010), “is that (at its best) it opens two windows simultaneously: one onto the world of the composer and another onto the world of the transcriber.”
Today we hear five examples of transcriptions from Bach, an inveterate transcriber himself. In fact, the last of these, the instrumental “Sinfonia” from Cantata no. 29, is itself already a transcription Bach had made from the Prelude to his E-major solo violin partita (no. 3, BWV 1006). On today’s program it is fittingly preceded by another of Saint-Saëns’ many transcriptions, the reposeful, gently flowing Largo movement from the C major solo violin sonata (no. 3, BWV 1005). From another Bach cantata (No. 22, Ertödt’ uns durch dein Güte) we hear the final movement, which Walter Rummel transcribed precisely from the original – a continuously flowing line in the violins punctuated by five phrases of the chorale text sung by four-part chorus. “Bach-Siloti” is a hyphenation well known to pianists. Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) was a Russian-born pianist, composer and teacher and one of Liszt’s last students. He created over two hundred piano transcriptions, one of the most famous being the Prelude we hear today. However, its provenance is in doubt; Johann Tobias Krebs is often cited as the most probable author. The program begins with one of the numerous Bach transcriptions by the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991).
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7
Beethoven began writing piano sonatas in earnest in 1793 (the three so-called “Electoral” Sonatas are juvenilia, written by a thirteen-year-old), shortly after the move from Bonn to his adopted city of Vienna. The first three sonatas were published as a group (Op. 2), but for his next work in the genre, written in 1796-1797, Beethoven had this “Grande Sonate,” as he called it, published under its own opus number. The designation is appropriate, for it is the longest (slightly over half an hour) of all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas save the Hammerklavier.
Spaciousness of design and an almost symphonic aura also contribute to the justification for calling this a “Grand Sonata.” Orchestrally conceived touches abound, right from the opening measures where the steadily repeated E flats in the bass would almost surely go to violas or cellos. Wide leaps, frequent use of resounding six- and even seven-note chords, smoothly gliding octaves in the right hand alone and lightning-fast scale passages all suggest the resources of a symphony orchestra. As pianist Anton Kuerti notes, “The richness and diversity of material, the dovetailing of lines, the antiphonal responses and the sumptuousness of design … all reinforce this impression.”
The first movement opens with a surge of energy that persists until the final chord. Beethoven’s characteristic gestures, such as startling contrasts of loud and soft, pregnant pauses, and strong attacks on weak beats, are found in abundance. The coda is announced with another typically Beethovenian gesture: the sudden, almost violent wrenching of the tonality into new territory by means of a simple harmonic sideslip.
The word “grand” turns up again in association with the slow movement specifically, whose performance direction is con gran espressione – with deep expression. With its aura of profound reverence, hymn-like writing, long silences that speak as eloquently as sound, a dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo, and a duration of about ten minutes, this movement encompasses a small world by itself. Formally it is a simple ABA structure, with the contrasting central episode in the warm key of A flat major. Again there is a coda of significant length.
The third movement combines features of the courtly minuet and the more playful scherzo. Beethoven called it neither, allowing a simple Allegro to serve as its title. The constant overlapping and dovetailing of voices imply the interplay of orchestral instruments. Pianist Charles Rosen calls the contrasting Trio, written in the rare key of E flat minor, “an atmospheric exercise in tone color, with the melody hidden in an arpeggiated motion of triplets.”
The light-hearted, gracious tone of the finale, a sonata-rondo design (ABA-C-ABA), gives way to a fiery central episode in C minor pervaded with rushing thirty-second notes in perpetual motion. In a surprise move, Beethoven ends this “grand” sonata not with an imposing flourish but with a quiet bow.
Alexander Scriabin: Mazurkas, Op. 3, and Valse, Op. 38
The life of Alexander Scriabin was one of the strangest in the history of music. He started out by writing graceful, sensuous, quasi-Chopinesque little piano pieces and ended up totally, even maniacally, absorbed in mysticism and the occult. As with Chopin, most of Scriabin’s music is for solo piano (the balance is for orchestra). Also like Chopin, there are nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, etudes, impromptus, waltzes and sonatas. The ten mazurkas of Op. 3 date from 1888-1889 when Scriabin was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory and very much under the influence of Chopin, though one could never mistake the Scriabinesque harmonic palette for Chopin’s. All are in ternary (ABA) form, each has a character of its own, which might range from gently wistful to exuberantly joyous, and all exhibit the characteristic rhythmic impulses of the mazurka.
Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin poetically describes the Waltz Op. 38 of 1903 (one of the few Scriabin wrote in this form) as “a fugacious memory of a distant past. … This piece is a magic box. Opened slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a luscious trace.”
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Nowhere in Chopin’s output do the national pride, dignified grandeur and defiant power of Poland find greater expression than in the polonaises. The polonaise originated in the late sixteenth century as a stately processional dance in triple metre. It was the polonaise that served as processional music for the lords and ladies to parade past the newly enthroned King of Poland in 1574 (Henry III of Anjou). Pianist Garrick Ohlsson calls the F sharp minor polonaise Op. 44 of 1841 “tragic, compulsive and complex.” Chopin himself referred to it as “a fantasy in the form of a polonaise.” Embedded in this polonaise – the longest by far of any Chopin polonaise excepting the unique Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61 – is another dance form entirely, a mazurka. Preceding this is a long passage featuring an incessant rhythmic pattern reminiscent of drum rolls, and virtually devoid of melody. Framing the entire structure is thematic material that few will deny is some of the grandest Chopin ever conceived. The music’s epic scale and tragic tone, the powerful sonority drawn from the piano, and the striking contrast between the majestic polonaise and the gentle mazurka contained therein (the critic James Huneker called it “a flower between two abysses”) all contribute to making this one of Chopin’s grandest creations.
J. Strauss II: Blue Danube arranged by A. Schulz-Evler
or Arabesques On Themes from Johann Strauss’s Waltz “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”, Op. 12
NOTE: Title taken directly from the title page as first published in Vienna, c. 1900, translated from German into English
More than any other kind of music, it is the waltz that conjures up visions of Vienna as a kind of romantic never-never land. Of all the composers who contributed to the rich heritage of Vienna’s dance music, it is Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King,” who reigns supreme. Leading the list of his many waltzes is the immortal On the Beautiful Blue Danube, (The Blue Danube, for short). Originally written in 1867 as a choral piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association, the words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is most familiar today.
Naturally, anything so popular has been subjected to countless arrangements. One of these, created in or about 1900, is for solo piano by the Polish pianist and composer Adolf (or Andrei or Andrej) Schulz-Evler (1852-1905). The rather cumbersome title, Arabesques on Themes from the Waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” is nevertheless an accurate description, for indeed, what Schulz-Evler has done is essentially to follow the same sequence of themes from Strauss’s original (in itself, in fact, a whole string of waltzes), while copiously adorning the music with arabesques, filigree and other decorative touches. The result is a tour de force that captivates with its charm and dazzles with its outlandish virtuosity, sweeping listeners into the music’s magical orbit and sending them home radiantly happy.
In an article devoted to “The Return of the Piano Transcription” some years ago (Classical Pulse!, June/July 1994), Philip Kennicott had these words to offer about Schulz-Evler’s contribution: “Strauss’s familiar waltz themes are decadently encrusted with a staggering amount of frippery and frills. The piece lurches from one insane technical hurtle to another. One wants to shout both ‘Stop this madness!’ and ‘More! More!’ at the same time. And underneath it all there is an elegance, a coy gracefulness; one marvels that any human being would train himself so thoroughly as to be able to accomplish this kind of playing.”
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.