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Program Notes: Benjamin Beilman, violin with Yekwon Sunwoo, piano

Franz Schubert

Sonata in A major D574

The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.

These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.

The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.

Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.

Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.

The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.

Leoš Janáček

Sonata for Violin & Piano

The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.

Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.

The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.

The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.

The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.

Béla Bartók

Sonata No. 2 Sz 76

While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.

The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.

The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.

The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.

Franz Schubert

Rondo in B minor D 895

The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”

Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.

The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.

The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.

The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.

PROGRAM NOTES: CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF

Eugène Ysaÿe


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.

 

György Kurtág


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.”

 

Bela Bartók


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.

 

 

 

 

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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