Bela Bartok Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

PROGRAM NOTES: FILIPPO GORINI

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

Béla Bartók
Sonata Sz. 80

In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.

The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.

If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.

The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Klavierstück IX

The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).

The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.

This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).

Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111

Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.

There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.

The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.

It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: ZOLTÁN FEJÉRVÁRI

Robert Schumann
Waldszenen Op. 82

It is not by chance that Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the founding work of German musical Romanticism, is set in a forest. Nor is it a coincidence that German Romantic poets from Ludwig Tieck to Joseph von Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine extolled the deep spiritual joys of Waldeinsamkeit: ‘alone time’ in a forest.

The Germans, you see, have a thing for forests. In the Teutonic imagination, a forest is a place of primordial re-connection with the restful, wondrous, and sometimes thrillingly spooky elements of Nature, all of which Robert Schumann sets before us in the nine character pieces of his Forest Scenes Op. 82, composed in 1849.

Unfolding as a series of intimate scenes, the set begins with our entry (Eintritt) into a cool and shadow-dappled tree world of murmuring forest sounds, out of which emerges a simple tune suitable for humming, its asymmetrical phrasing evoking the moment-by-moment wandering gaze of the forest stroller.

This idyllic daydream is interrupted by the urgent horn calls and intermittent rifle-fire of Jäger auf der Lauer (hunters lying in wait) who break out into the open to pursue their prey, with echoes of the furious triplets from Schubert’s Erlkönig conveying the excitement of the chase.

The two ‘flower’ pieces that follow are starkly contrasting. The naively simple Einsame Blumen (lonely flowers) proceeds in a gentle, continuous flow of 8th-note melody with a phrase structure as teasingly irregular as that of the opening Eintritt. The eerie double-dotted rhythms of Verrufene Stelle (haunted places) convey the macabre scene described in a poem by Friedrich Hebbel that stands at the head of this piece, describing a dark red flower that draws its colour from earth that has drunk human blood. The Schumann’s wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, refused to play this piece in public, describing it as “haunted music.”

A mood of unfettered delight returns in the rippling triplets and evenly balanced 4-bar phrases of Freundliche Landschaft (friendly landscape) while the comforts of a warm fire and comfy chair are evoked in Herberge (the inn). There is a forthright, almost ‘churchy’ self-confidence in this hymn to hostelry that makes it a perfect representation of Biedermeier coziness.

The most famous piece in the cycle is Vogel als Prophet (bird as prophet), a brilliant piece of sound painting that imitates the flitting of wings as a bird darts from tree to tree. In its chorale-like middle section it sanctifies the mystical powers of aviary prophecy.

There is a triumphal quality to the following Jagdlied (hunting song) that is reminiscent of the finale of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op. 13. The hunters in question are obviously in an upbeat mood, returning home with full sacks of game and anticipating the feast to come.

In his song-like farewell (Abschied) to the forest’s flora and fauna Schumann returns to the reflective mood with which the cycle began, enriched, however by numerous references to the melodies and keyboard textures featured in previous scenes.

Leoš Janáček
In the Mists

Janacek’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music, as is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism à la Debussy, but an impressionism filtered through Czech ears.

The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetition of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of the melancholy opening material.

The varied repetition of a 4-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.

The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure. It ends, however, exactly as it began.

The 4th movement, Presto, with its many changes of metre, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.

Béla Bartók
Out of Doors

In Bartók’s Out of Doors suite of 1926, the sound world of Hungarian village life is projected through a thick lens of aesthetic primitivism in which rhythm and melody alone engage the ear. Traditional harmony, dependent on chord spacing that parallels the layout of the overtone series, has no place in keyboard textures so richly encrusted with tone clusters and bristling with dissonances.

Radical simplification is the modus operandi of these textures. Rhythm is often reduced to a steady beat or ostinato, providing a background pulse to an irregular overlay of melodic fragments of small range and short duration. Notes repeated on the same pitch are a major constituent element in both background and foreground layers of sound. This is chunky, ‘Lego’ music built up from simple rough-hewn elements, but assembled in patterns of considerable sophistication.

The opening With Drums and Pipes divides the piano into two distinct registers. In the deep bass, a loud stuttering volley of sounds, both muffled and clearly-pitched, represents an echoing pair of drums while the mid-range offers up the pipes (i.e., low wind instruments) in a similar imitative interplay of overlapping short motives.

The Barcarolla features the same continuous 8th-note motion, but in a constantly wandering two-voice texture that imitates the rocking motion of a Venetian gondola, over which a plaintive gondolier’s melody struggles to be heard.

The creak and skirl of village bagpipes is portrayed with astonishing accuracy in Musettes, with quicksilver trill figures representing the typical ornamentation patterns of traditional pipe-playing. The questionable tuning of these instruments is conveyed through pungently dissonant drone patterns in the bass.

A heightened awareness of stillness in the night is the principal characteristic of The Night’s Music, with its tightly-packed tone clusters imitative of the eerie nocturnal musings of crickets, cicadas and frogs.

The suite closes with The Chase, a toccata-like romp over hill and dale with a furiously churning ostinato in the left hand that surely must count among the most extreme technical challenges of Bartók’s entire piano output.

Robert Schumann
Fantasie in C major Op. 17

Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasie Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenaged daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wieck. The Fantasie’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in its mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).

That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a ‘grand sonata’ in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”

The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.

The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.

Schumann’s three-movement ‘sonata’ was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

Program Notes: Caroline Goulding & Wenwen Du

Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in A major, BWV 1015

Before taking up his post as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, Bach served as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728). The young Prince was of the Calvinist persuasion, and thus had little need for church music, but he was also an avid music-lover and a competent viola da gamba player who spent lavishly on a musical establishment, his Kapelle, that Bach directed from 1717 to 1723. And so it was that during his tenure there Bach composed the majority of his works for violin, including a good half-dozen sonatas for violin and keyboard.

The four movements of the Sonata in A major are laid out in the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the ‘church’ sonata (sonata da chiesa), so named for its generally abstract style, considered more suitable for performance in a solemn setting than the dance-dominated ‘chamber’ sonata (sonata da camera). In this work Bach writes in the prevailing style of the trio sonata—normally featuring a lead solo instrument accompanied by clearly subordinate harmonic in-fill on the keyboard and bass reinforcement by some low-sounding instrument—but he enriches the genre by creating three independent melodic lines on two instruments: the violin and the two hands of the keyboard player.

This is evident in the warmly gracious first movement (without tempo indication) which opens with a luxuriantly long-limbed melody, deliciously ambivalent in its rhythmic pulse (is it 6/8 or 3/4?), answered immediately in the keyboard’s right hand, and then again in the left. The deliberately varied mixture of note lengths and beat patterns encourages you to forget the passage of time while gracious details such as simultaneous chains of trills in both instruments add a decorative element of Roccoco refinement to the texture.

The Allegro assai second movement is much more strongly rhythmic and features the propulsive motoric rhythms of the concerto grosso, with the keyboard often taking the lead in a constant chatter of 16ths while the violin trots blithely along commenting in a uniform pattern of 8ths. The violin’s breathless volley of rapid-fire arpeggios in the middle section is reminiscent of a Brandenburg Concerto cadenza.

Gentle pathos and lyrical introspection mark the Andante un poco third movement in the minor mode. Plaintively vocal in style, this movement is nevertheless structured with astonishing rigour. Listen for the strict two-voice canon between the violin and keyboard’s right hand.

The final Presto is in two-part form (with repeats) like a dance movement, but elaborated in a free three-voice fugue texture in each half. In this concluding movement Bach manages to gift his pleasure-loving prince with a finale that combines regal dignity and courtly decorum with the toe-tapping cheerfulness of a folk tune suitable for whistling.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2

In this sonata we catch Beethoven at the top of his game in a work of remarkable coherence, despite its wide variety of moods and wildly divergent styles of expression. Its outer movements, in particular, are chock-full of emotional mood swings while its inner movements simply wade ever deeper and deeper into the emotional tone they establish at their outset.

The piano is more than a full partner in the proceedings and its tone dominates the sonata as a whole. All four movements open with solo statements from the piano, and while the violin participates fully in the presentation and development of themes, it merely adds to, but never overshadows, the piano’s potential to create sonic theatre on its own terms. The piano purrs and growls in this work. It skips, it hops. By turns it whistles a merry tune and then tenderly pleads for understanding. The work of giving a place to the keyboard in the violin sonata, begun by Bach, is complete in this C minor sonata.

Of course, the key signature of C minor in Beethoven is tantamount to an in-flight announcement to fasten your seat-belt and expect turbulence. And Ludwig van B. does not disappoint. The work opens in a mood of mystery and quiet urgency with a furtive chordal motive in the piano that turns into a menacing murmur surging up from the bass at the entry of the violin. Strident, sabre-slashing chords mark the transition to the second theme that (anticlimactically) turns out to be a pert little military march, reminiscent of Non più andrai, the bass aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro evoking Cherubino’s future life in the army. The opera parallel continues as this theme then moves to the bass to rumble around in classic opera buffa style. Throughout the movement high drama plays out next to good-natured buffoonery, interspersed with passages of sheer rhythmic exhilaration. Beethoven clearly loves his material here and won’t let it go, plunging into an almost developmental coda of some length before the final chords of this movement.

The Adagio cantabile that follows paints a noble portrait of deep-seated emotion lacquered over, and held in check, by aristocratic restraint, its opening gesture of pleading repeated notes suggesting far more than the elegant, balanced phrases of its melody can express. Violin and piano become ever more texturally entwined as the movement progresses, with the piano eventually contributing a rich carpet of sweeping and swirling figurations beneath the cantilena of the violin above.

The Scherzo simply oozes with personality of a goofy, knuckle-headed sort that wins you over immediately. Its chirpy high spirits and galumphing rhythm, with phrases neatly cut up into bite-size pieces, bespeaks the country yokel but its playful toying with the metrical accent gives a hint of a winking intelligence lurking behind this pose, especially when the trio turns out to be in canon.

The sonata-rondo finale returns to the arena of high-tension theatre, beginning with its very first bars: a bass rumble that crescendos to explode into an exclamation point in the higher register, followed by hushed chords tiptoeing through the mid-range. It is hard not to think that in the many contrasting sections of this rondo, in its quicksilver alternations of major and minor mode, its deadpan changes of mood between high drama and skippy-dippy cheerfulness, Beethoven might well be having a laugh at the expense of sonata form itself.

 

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

It has been suggested that the title ‘sonata’ is equivalent here to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting. It simply refers to an absence of acknowledged subject matter, meaning that there was no ‘picture’ in mind when writing it. Others see Debussy as returning to the time of Rameau, when the term ‘sonata’ was used to mean simply a purely instrumental piece, something played rather than sung, but not necessarily a work following a prescribed formal plan.

Whatever the significance of the label, we find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this work, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. This melodic rocking motion—in 3rds, in 4ths and then in 5ths— repeats often in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone.

The second movement tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes.

The finale, Très animé, opens with a display of piano bravura, answered in the violin with the opening melody of the first movement. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Béla Bartók
Rhapsody No.
1 Sz. 87

Bartók was not only a gifted composer and an accomplished pianist but also a dedicated ethnomusicologist who travelled deep into the rural outback of his native Hungary and surrounding regions to make recordings of villagers singing and playing the traditional music of their local areas. The authentic, raw-edged musical culture of turn-of-the-century peasant life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is captured in these recordings, but it is also heard in the many works that Bartók composed based on the melodies and rhythms collected on these ethnomusicological field trips.

His first Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, composed in 1928, is one of these. Structured in two movements in the slow-fast (lassú-friss) pattern of Hungarian folk music, this work seeks to meld the disparate worlds of Eastern European village fiddling and Western European concert life. The style of violin playing is heavily influenced by the capricious improvisatory showmanship of Gypsy fiddle-playing while the piano, resonant with dense tone clusters, jangles with the metallic timbre of a rag-tag village band.

The first movement Lassú presents a strutting rising-scale melody in the Lydian mode (think: C major scale with F# instead of F) over a plodding piano part rife with drone tones, often more a sonic drum-beat than a melodic line. A middle section offers lyric contrast with a plangent lament derived from a Transylvanian folk tune, full of rhythmic ‘snaps’ in a quick short-long pattern.

The Friss is a series of dance tunes with no overall formal structure other than that of continually building up excitement, accelerando, till the end. The violin in this movement is pushed to ever greater exertions of virtuosic showmanship in pursuit of its rhapsodic goals. (Is it just me, or is the first tune not a dead ringer for the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”?)

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

Program notes: The Vertavo String Quartet with Paul Lewis, piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major K. 414

Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent 
of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a piano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.

The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.

Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show. Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes, parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement, but more importantly, as 
in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.

Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch. Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.

The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it
presents – four in the orchestral exposition alone. The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall. The ‘development section’, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra. Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.

The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of J.S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J.C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute. And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.

The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure. The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repeated motive of three notes descending by step. When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra!

Thrills, spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.

 

Bela Bartók
String Quartet No. 6

In the film Play It Again Sam, Woody Allen nervously busies himself arranging his apartment to be just right for the arrival of his date. He is torn over the appropriate choice of background music: will it be Oscar Peterson, or a Bartók string quartet? The implication is clear: does he want to appear ‘hip’ or ‘intellectual’?

Even without the neurotic nod from Woody Allen, the Bartók string quartets have always had a reputation
for being ‘intellectual,’ and for good reason. They are tightly-argued, dense works composed in continuity with the great German tradition of motivic development and thematic transformation. They stubbornly pursue an agenda of making a work grow out of a small number of single cells of musical material – a kind of ‘sourdough’ approach to making the musical loaf, if you will.

Bartok’s motivic cells are usually made up of only a 
few notes lying within a small melodic range, normally the space of a perfect fourth – which immediately sets them apart from the octave-spanning dozen-note pitch patterns of that other 20th-century genre of intellectual music: 12-tone composition. Like the five-note spans of many a Stravinsky tune (the finale of The Firebird springs to mind), the melodic units in Bartók’s string quartets are human-scale tunes, and like those of Stravinsky as well, undoubtedly influenced in this by the composer’s in-depth exposure to the folk music of his native land.

This quartet was composed in the fall of 1939, in the
 last months that Bartók was to spend in Hungary. His mother was dying, his own health was deteriorating, and World War II had just broken out, causing him to make plans to escape with his family to the United States. Such is the context for the unusual formal structuring 
of this work, in which each movement begins mesto
 (i.e., sadly) with the same lyrical, but lonely chromatic melody. This melody wanders its lonely path, mostly by whole tones and semitones, fixating finally towards the end on a motive that will be fundamental to the work
as a whole: three notes within a perfect 4th that change direction after the second note.

This melody will gradually expand in textural weight as it introduces each successive movement. It is presented in one voice, the viola, at the start of the first movement, in two voices at the beginning of the second movement (with three instruments playing a single line), in three voices at the start of the third movement, and in all four voices in the last movement.

The first and last movements are in a kind of sonata form, with a developmental middle section. They treat their material (the three-note motive and two other ideas) in an abstract way in the tradition of European ‘absolute’ music, with much use of imitation between the instruments and structural manipulation of motives, especially by inversion.

The two inner movements are much more connected with the outside world, though they see that world through the distorting lens of irony and satire. The second movement features a grotesque march – surely a comment on the militarism that was driving him to flee his homeland – with a contrasting middle section that parodies the strumming cimbalom of Hungarian folk music. The third movement is less subtle still. It breaks out into open laughter in a clownish burlesque relieved only by a brief interval of sentimental remembrance in its middle section.

By the fourth movement, the downward pull of the mesto melody is irresistible and its influence, along with mystified quotations from the first movement lead the quartet to end in a questioning haze of emotional numbness, symbolized by the futile attempt of the viola to begin its lonely message over again in the closing bars.

 

Antonin Dvořák
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81

Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonin Dvořák’s music and the pull of his traditionally crafted but ethnically flavoured compositions is equally strong among contemporary audiences today. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the aural structures of music were becoming ever more complex and fatiguing for the listener, Dvořák offered a range of esthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era – formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality devoid of the chromatic ambiguities that made Wagnerian harmony such a distorting circus-mirror for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s enduring love of exoticism and nationalist sentiment with his gracious, soulfully folk-music-tinged melodies, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies, and with his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings.

All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are
 to be found in his magnificent Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which, along with Schumann’s E-flat Quintet, Op. 44 and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet Op. 34, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.

The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in
 a sunny A major, it dips by the end into the shadows
 of the minor mode before yielding to a restless,
 more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This abrupt contrast between thematically derived passages is a particularly Brahmsian touch
(the F Minor Quintet begins with the same contrast) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody will be presented before a second subject, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola, soon enveloped by yet another utterly scrumptious piano figuration. Dvořák’s textural inventiveness is limitless.

The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability to merge imperceptibly into the recapitulation. The movement is crowned by an extended coda that drives relentlessly to its conclusion with all the propulsive energy of a Rossini overture.

The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought’, and the lonely, pensive opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and more upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A- C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, pleading, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, also in F♯ minor.

In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.

Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between
the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.

This movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a viable replacement for prescription antidepressants.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2014

 

 

Top