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Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

The collection of German folk poetry published between 1805 and 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) had an enormous influence on the development of German lyric poetry and song in the 19th century, and the artless simplicity of these verses was particularly attractive to Gustav Mahler. Over half of his solo songs derive from this collection, many in both chamber and orchestral versions, and some even found their way into his symphonies, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies in particular.

Growing up in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, Mahler heard a great deal of military music when young and a number of his settings reflect his early fascination with this kind of music. There is, however, a tragic undertow in the military songs he chose to set from the Wunderhorn collection. Their mood is sombre, occasionally even macabre. They glint with an irony that pays tribute to the dark subtext lying beneath their childlike surface of story-telling.

Revelge (Reveille) marches to the tramping beat of a drummer wounded in battle who rouses the mortal remains of his fallen comrades to a ghastly advance against the foe. The mock-gleeful refrain of tralali, tralaley underscores the eerie ‘esprit de corpse’ of this grotesque procession.

Der Tamboursg’sell (The drummer boy) features another doomed drummer, this time marching to the gallows for the crime of desertion. Regular drum rolls mark the pace of this funeral procession while major-minor alternations in the harmony give voice to the boy’s wavering psychological state.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the splendid trumpets sound) is a variant of the medieval Tagelied, depicting the reluctant separation of lovers at dawn. Distant trumpet fanfares symbolize the soldier’s call of duty but the “green heath” of battle he must hasten to will be his new home, in death.

 

Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

The death of the promising 28-year-old composer-turned-soldier Rudi Stephan, victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Eastern Front, is one of the great losses that WWI inflicted on Western music. His song collection Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) sets poems by Gerda von Robertus, the pseudonym of Gertrud Emily von Schlieben (1873-1939). Hohelied is the German term for the Song of Solomon and Stephan’s sultry and sensual settings attempt to express the power of love as both spiritual and erotic, in imitation of the Biblical text.

These songs, with their simple piano accompaniments, are exquisite miniatures that move forward in unhurried waves of emotion, luminously depicting in gently dissonant but firmly tonal harmonies the bittersweet yearning and imaginative wanderings of the lover’s heart.

The background strumming of the ancient lyre and the rippling of the ocean waves can be heard in the piano part of Kythere (Cythera), that describes a voyage to the perfume-scented isle of the love-goddess Venus. The pouncing potential of the lover-as-panther can be heard in the jumpy rhythms of Pantherlied (Panther song). Infinite delicacy in both the voice and piano parts of Abendfrieden (Evening peace) evokes the stillness of the twilight hours.

The mysterious exoticism of In Nachbars Garten (In the neighbours garden) paints the painful joy of witnessing love from afar. The steady pace of Glück zu Zweien counts the steps of a pair of lovers climbing ever higher to take in the vistas that their own togetherness presents to them. And finally, the unearthly stillness of Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) evokes night as the geographic centre of love’s domain.

 

George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

Many a British soldier in the Great War carried with him to the front a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and the attraction would be easy to see. The poems in this collection by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896, were written in the straightforward language of the English farmer, laid out in the simple rhythmic patterns of English folk song. They present an idealized picture of country life, used as a lens through which to view the harsh realities of war and death. The stark fatalism of these poems, studded with their nostalgic reminders of home, would have appealed to those living in the trenches in France, many of them destined to be, in Housman’s casually chilling phrase, “lads that will never be old.”

George Butterworth, a graduate of Eton, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, was killed in the Great War. A few years before the outbreak of hostilities, he composed two sets of songs to the poems in this collection, the first of which we will hear this evening. These settings give pride of place to the voice, to which the piano offers an extremely sparse accompaniment, with many modal turns

of harmony that evoke a folk-song-like style of expression. None more so than the last and most celebrated song of the set, Is my team ploughing?, an almost speech-like rendering in dialogue of the meeting between a dead soldier’s ghost and his best friend, still alive, who is reluctant to reveal with whose sweetheart he now lays down at night.

 

Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

Kurt Weill is best known for his hit tune “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, which he composed in collaboration with Bertold Brecht in 1928 as reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. As a successful Jewish composer of stage music he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and was forced to flee in 1933. He eventually settled in New York in 1935, where he took to his new home with relish and began to write for the Broadway stage.

Immediately after Pearl Harbour, he set to work on a contribution to the war effort: composing songs to texts by the American poet Walt Whitman. Three Whitman songs were completed in 1942. A fourth was added in 1947. All four deal with the most compelling event of Whitman’s time, the American Civil War.

Beat! Beat! Drums! is a vigorous call to battle that Weill sets as a stomping march in a modernist idiom very close to the polemical style of his earlier theatre works.

O Captain! My Captain! is Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Its style is definitely Broadway, which gives this lament an all-the-more common touch as a tribute piece.

Come up from the Fields, Father tells the story of the arrival of a letter from the army to tell a family that their only son is dead. The fulsome piano accompaniment gives this tragic scene its full measure of dignity.

Dirge for Two Veterans commemorates the death of a father and son in the same battle, juxtaposing the beauty of a landscape at dusk with the sense of loss that these twin deaths brings. In painting the scene, Weill gives each sentiment a different harmonic colouring.

 

Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote poetry in Scots dialect in his poems for children, and in standard English in his more serious verse. Benjamin Britten used both kinds of poems by Soutar in his Who Are These Children, a work that jarringly contrasts the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with the destructive power of war. It is this latter power, the power to destroy, that occupies the four songs in standard English from this song cycle being presented by Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Du this evening.

Nightmare is ostensibly about the chopping down of a tree by “a dark shape,” but its symbolic resonance is much more powerful. Britten paints the tree’s dreamlike existence in the piano’s right-hand ostinato figures, the “murderer” of that dream in ominously low left-hand octaves.

Slaughter pits the voice, struggling to tell its tale, against a restless toccata- chatter of piano cuts and thrusts ranging widely over the keyboard, emblematic of the disconnect between the power to destroy and the power of bearing witness to that destruction. This is a scene in which “wise men are made dumb.”

Who are these children? paints a country scene as absurd as it is gallingly immoral: an elegant fox-hunting party rides through town on horseback during a world war that sees bombs falling on cities. Britten first paints the prancing procession of rich folk before switching his musical sympathies to the children onlookers, recently escaped from “fire and smoke,” whose uncomprehending stare sums up the poet’s indignation.

An eerie calm pervades The Children, a song that pictures the bodies of children lying in the streets after a bombing raid. The world seems unconcerned, and “the stars move to their places” as if nothing unusual had happened. Britten’s use of a rippling ostinato figure in the treble of the piano part represents the moral bewilderment that such a horrific scene would provoke in any thinking person.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Program Notes: Arcanto Quartet

This evening the Arcanto Quartet offers us a chance to explore chamber music from the end of the 17th century to the recent past, sampling music for four players by Henry Purcell (1659–95), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

 

Henry Purcell

Long before the primacy of the string quartet, consort music for viols was a pre- eminent genre of instrumental music. Sixteenth century British composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis wrote impressive polyphonic compositions for three, four, or five performers. Slightly over a hundred years later, the young Henry Purcell became the last major figure to explore this particular format. His early fantasias and in nomines for viols—compositions based on a particularly popular chant fragment—were created at the transitional moment when the older viol family of instruments was giving way to the more brilliant timbre of the violins.

Purcell’s reputation as the first homegrown British composer to truly master the Baroque style is unassailable. Much of his music is indebted to Italian practice, yet his 13 fantasias demonstrate an implicit conservatism—close to the last gasp of an indigenous British string tradition.

What Purcell might have made of the sound and timbres of the modern string quartet is anyone’s guess. But modern interest in the unique charm of Purcell’s music has encouraged contemporary string quartets to program these varied and delightful compositions. Purcell had no more sincere admirer than Benjamin Britten, who adapted his Chacony in G minor for string quartet as early as 1948, in part to familiarize players and audiences with his distinguished predecessor’s music.

 

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s purely instrumental works have been somewhat eclipsed by the splendour of his creations for the opera stage, but his string quartets—written, conveniently, in “early,” “middle,” and “late” career—are gradually finding their way into the standard repertoire of the world’s great quartets.

His first quartet, conceived in 1928, when the composer was 14, was a substantial four-movement affair immediately withdrawn, and not published until the 1990s. The “official” First Quartet dates from 1941, created during the composer’s unsatisfactory self-exile in the United States. The Second Quartet was written four years later, just as Britten’s first great opera, Peter Grimes, was being premiered in war-torn London. Characteristically, it pays extravagant homage to Purcell with an astonishing concluding Chacony.

Creating the Third Quartet had to wait until the final months of Britten’s life. Commissioned by the Amadeus String Quartet in 1974, it is very much a final summing up and a farewell. Some of its musical materials were quarried from Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, but it is by no means just a suite of best bits or recycled out-takes from that stage work.

Like Shostakovich, his composer friend of later years, Britten filled his music with coded references and intentional ambiguities, though it might seem that choosing to base an opera on Thomas Mann’s tale of infatuation and the end of a life devoted to art is fairly unambiguous.

Whatever its sources, the Third Quartet is chamber music of the highest quality, rife with allusive references to the historical idea of the string quartet. Its five-movement structure, with such operatic focuses as “duets,” “solo,” and “recitative,” relates to similar five-movement structures in two of the 20th century’s other quartet masters, Bartók and Shostakovich, and reflects a conscious desire to push beyond the conventional classic four-movement quartet format. The use of Lydian mode in the second movement inevitably brings to mind Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132, with its “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity”—a fairly unpleasant

bit of irony given the precarious state of Britten’s health when he was writing the piece. The Burlesque evokes Mahler, one of Britten’s abiding heros, and his embittered scherzos.

Then comes the finale. Britten made a final pilgrimage to Venice in November 1975, where he created much of the music heard at the end of the quartet. It is his last use of the passacaglia/chaconne type of variations, an old pre-classical structure he

employed with spectacular variety throughout his work. In opera Britten uses the form to underscore moments of great seriousness and drama, making it a potent symbol as well as a musical structure. In abstract contexts such as the finales of both the second and third quartets, it is left to the listener to ponder extra-musical meanings.

Britten heard a private run-through of the piece at the end of September, 1976, but died a few weeks before the quartet’s premiere by the Amadeus in The Maltings, the concert hall Britten created near Aldeburgh, in mid-December 1976.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

By the time Beethoven turned his hand to the “Razumovsky” Quartets in the middle of the first decade of the 19th century, he was accepted as one of the major composers in Vienna. His flashy early years were over, and he was well-advanced into what scholars generally call his middle period, a compositional phase where he focussed on pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas.

Beethoven’s three Opus 59 string quartets are central to the development of the string quartet as chamber music’s most important genre. Beethoven accepted the four- movement sequence standardized by Mozart and Haydn—weighty first movement, slow movement, Minuet, and fast finale—but he expanded the classic idioms with his own unmistakable textures, formal devices, and harmonic language.

The nickname “Razumovsky” refers to one of Beethoven’s patrons, Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752–1836), a Russian diplomat at the Austrian court. A player as well as a connoisseur, Razumovsky maintained a resident quartet (apparently sitting in occasionally as second violin) and commissioned Beethoven to write the three quartets that have kept the count’s name alive long after his career as a powerful figure in the complicated world of international diplomacy has been forgotten.

Beethoven did remarkable work in the three Opus 53 quartets, but not all his contemporaries got the point; indeed at least one writer recorded his reservations. An 1807 observer for the weekly music publication the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the compositions as “very long and difficult.” The writer was by no means entirely negative, adding, “They are profoundly thought through and composed with enormous skill,” before concluding “but [they] will not be intelligible to everyone.”

This mixed review did not extend to the C major quartet, however—“Which by virtue of its individuality, melodic invention and harmonic power is certain to win over every educated music lover.” As it has to this day.

 

 

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

As I enter my 20th year of professional performance, I have been reflecting on the most resonant musical moments throughout my development as a singer. From my beginning as a Broadway baby to my now daily dances with Handel, I have realized that there is a lot of music in between those two poles which has shaped me. This program is a collection of personal parcels, each one having a distinct and meaningful place in my trajectory.

As an eager 16 year old planning my first-ever recital, I was immediately taken by the beauty and depth of Henri Duparc’s songs and was simultaneously fascinated by his systematic destruction of his entire oeuvre, apart from a small handful of remaining works. I have chosen to start this recital with the same three songs that began my first recital as a budding countertenor.

Before I could even fathom the idea of vocal recital, at 13, I was asked to do my first role in opera: Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. After years of musical theater, I found the challenge and the emotional complexity of Britten’s work exhilarating. As I entered into Britten’s universe, I discovered classical music’s ability to plumb the depths of human experience with uncanny expression, and it was this discovery that sent me down the road to becoming a classical singer. Britten not only holds a special place in my artistic journey, but also in the history of countertenors as he is the first composer ever to have written an operatic role specifically for countertenor as opposed to castrato — that of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His transcriptions of old English folk songs showcase his agility in wafting between subtly ironic, flat out silly, and poignant.

One thing I’ve learned about being half southern Italian and half Hungarian-Jewish is that while I may know how to eat well, I have a lot of guilt with which to contend. Luckily, both of my parents are psychologists, so I was able to focus mainly on the food. I realized recently that apart from the occasional chicken paprikash, the only connection to my Hungarian heritage I can remember is a miniature bust of Liszt that made its way onto the dresser in my childhood bedroom. When I learned about Liszt’s lore in college, his emotionally virtuosic playing and its palpable effects, I was intrigued. Since then I’ve been trying to put together a group of his songs that felt natural to me as a performer, and it wasn’t until now that I concocted this felicitous combination of his German settings. Connected, but not entirely the same as this Hungarian sense of romanticism, is the characteristically Italian state of impetuosity. Though none of the three Italian arias I am presenting was actually written by an Italian, they were all written for and performed by Italian castrati. These physically altered superstars of their era gave the art of opera wings, and along the way generated a body of work which never ceases to entrance me. Both Mozart and Handel offer endless opportunities to dig into characters with harmonic shifts, textual delineation and of course ornamentation carefully cooked-up by the singers themselves. These three arias represent the foundation of my work as a singer: executing the highest of technical demands while simultaneously rendering emotional arcs tangible.

At six years old I was no good at reading sheet music. My unusually creative piano teacher, Pei-Fen Liu, thought that perhaps instead of trying to play the notes, I’d have an easier time taking my fingers out of the equation. So I began to sing, and though I’m not sure my sight-reading improved, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed singing. After humming notes and singing solfège scales, Pei-Fen decided it was time for the next step. She pulled out a book of Gershwin songs, and away we went. I became so enthusiastic about Gershwin that I used to sit in my room and listen to any recordings I could find. When I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, I wanted so badly to understand how she wove her magic that I remember spending hours trying to copy down each syllable of scat that she added to the tunes she was singing. By the time I was eight, I told my parents that I was ready to give this a go in public. Wonderfully supportive as they were, they helped me to find an audition at a community theater. Filled with anticipation, and a joy of music, I walked into the audition room with a Gershwin tune prepared. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a life of music and a craft which challenges and moves me every day. As I opened my mouth to sing the first few bars of “Summertime” that day, I couldn’t have imagined that it would close a recital like this one with the VRS.

-Anthony Roth Costanzo

Program Notes: Anthony Roth Costanzo

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO

 

Henri Duparc was, with Berlioz and Fauré, among the pioneers of la mélodie (the French art song, as distinguished from folk song). His career was remarkable in that although he lived for 85 years, his reputation rests on barely more than a dozen songs. “Chanson triste” was Duparc’s first song, written at the age of twenty and published with four others as his Op. 2 in 1868.  It displays the quintessentially Gallic qualities of elegance, charm, sensitivity and polish. It also engages our imagination in a melancholic, yearning clair de lune setting of a text by the Symbolist poet Jean Lahor. “L’Invitation au voyage” takes for its text the famous Baudelaire poem of the same title. The poet’s dream world steeped in drugs, the atmosphere suffused with orientalism, and the imaginary voyage of the mind, were captured to perfection by Duparc in this masterpiece of ambiguous harmonies, unstable rhythms, sensuous imagery and vague meaning. In “Phidylé” Wagnerian chromaticism is much in evidence, as is the continuous development of melodic cells, the atmosphere of vague longing, an almost Tristanesque sensuality and rise to an ecstatic climax.

Few composers have captured in music the spirit and essence of their homeland with the vividness and poignancy as has Benjamin Britten. One of the many manifestations of Britten’s “English-ness” is found in settings of his country’s folksongs. “The Ploughboy,” in Britten’s arrangement of a tune by the English composer William Shield (1748-1829), takes a humorous, even cynical view of social advancement in the late eighteenth century. The text of “The ash grove” is a reflection on meetings with a deceased beloved, set to a well-known Welsh tune. “The foggy, foggy dew” exists in numerous versions, and has acquired something of a reputation for its bawdy text. Burl Ives was jailed for singing it in public in Utah, and the BBC had restrictions on broadcasting it. And just what is the “foggy, foggy dew”? That’s open to interpretation!

The enormously prolific and versatile Franz Liszt, though best known for his orchestral and piano music, also wrote more than eighty songs in six languages. Freedom of form and advanced harmony are commonly found in these songs, many of which he revised two, three or even four times, sometimes turning them into keyboard transcriptions as well. Although Liszt is usually billed as a Hungarian, he never spoke this language well, and the language he set most often in songs was German.

Liszt’s original setting of Heine’s poem “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (In the Rhine, the beauteous stream) depicted a river bursting with energy. The revised, commonly heard version is more subtle, portraying a gently flowing body of water. “In Liebeslust” (In love’s delight), set to a poem by Liszt’s close friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, is a song so taken with love that the immortal words “Ich liebe dich” are emphatically sung nine times in three groups in three different manners. “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (Peace reigns on every peak) is a setting of one of Goethe’s most famous poems (“Wandrers Nachtlied II”), one that has inspired dozens of composers, including Schubert and Schumann. Liszt’s song presents a picture of almost unearthly stillness. The lovely song about religious love, “Hohe Liebe” (Exalted love), to a text by Ludwig Uhland, also exists in a more extended version as the first of the three Liebesträume for solo piano. “Ihr Glocken von Marling” (Ye Bells of Marling) is a late song (1874). The bells of Emil Kuh’s poem are evoked in impressionistic, almost mystical terms in Liszt’s gently pulsing music.

Just after the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Milan in February of 1770, he was commissioned to write his first full-length opera seria, which was premiered that December. Mitridate, rè di Ponto was a great success, receiving 22 consecutive performances, but then dropped from sight until it was revived in Salzburg in 1971.The plot focuses on the love triangle between Aspasia, betrothed to King Mithradates of Pontus (a region on the Black Sea, now part of Turkey) and his two sons Sifare and Farnace. In his first aria of the opera, Farnace resolves to back the Roman contingent in the city and to challenge his father’s political position. It is a thrilling aria of substantial dimensions (over seven minutes in length), shot through with fortitude and steely determination.

Georg Friedrich Handel composed an enormous amount of music, including more than forty operas. With each of these productions containing an average of 25 arias, simple arithmetic gives us the astounding figure of well over 1,000 arias just for this body of music alone. Giulio Cesare (1724) was enormously successful and, along with Rinaldo, remains Handel’s most frequently performed opera today. The story takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C. at the time of the Roman campaign led by Caesar. By the beginning of Act III, Caesar is presumed drowned, but miraculously he survives. Drawing himself up on the shore, he bemoans his fate, the disappearance of his troops and the loss of his beloved Cleopatra in an aria of touching simplicity. The plot of Flavio (1723) deftly combines elements of the comic and the tragic. Guido’s Act II rage aria, “Rompo i lacci”, written for the famed castrato Senesino, races along at a breathless pace and features a number of melismas, two of which go on for an extraordinary 49 notes (a melisma is a string of notes sung to a single syllable). The plot of Amadigi (1715) involves a complicated love quadrangle. The men Amadigi and Dardano are both in love with Oriana (who loves only Amadigi), while the sorceress Melissa is also in love with Amadigi. In Act II, Dardano (a castrato role), despairing of ever winning Melissa for himself, sings his magnificent aria “Pena tiranna” to the sarabande rhythm (long-long, [breath], short long-long, [breath], etc.)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other composer the United States has ever produced. His output of over 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, nearly equals Schubert’s in size. “I Got Rhythm” and “Sam and Delilah” both come from the musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930), whose story takes place in America’s Wild West. What made audiences crazy about Girl Crazy was a young newcomer in the cast, Ethel Merman, an actress “whose personality swept through the theater like a tropical cyclone,” as one critic put it. These two songs belonged to her. “Embraceable You” is one of Gershwin’s most irresistibly seductive songs, but probably the one that more people know than any other is “Summertime”, the languorous lullaby Clara sings to her infant shortly after the curtain goes up on the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

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