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Program notes: Maximilian Hornung & Benjamin Engeli

Robert Schumann
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102

Long before Martha Stewart made middle-class home furnishings a “thing,” the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) ushered in a bourgeois age of cozy home interiors that celebrated domestic family life and gave music a prominent place within it. Biedermeier Europe enjoyed the blessings of peace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 much as the Eisenhower era did in North America after WWII. But instead of washers, dryers, and TV sets, the European ‘mod con’ most in demand was the piano, an instrument that afforded middle-class families the luxury of home music-making once reserved for the wealthier classes.

As a consequence, the market for Hausmusik (music for amateur performance by small ensembles in the home) expanded considerably. This market had its peaks of refinement in the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn, and its valleys of vulgarity in the variations and potpourris of lesser composers, as annoyingly popular in Biedermeier drawing rooms as YouTube cat videos on computer screens today.

Robert Schumann, after spending the 1830s composing solo piano music exclusively, made up for lost time at the end of the 1840s with a bumper crop of Hausmusik including his Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano. The simple “popular style” (Volkston) of these pieces is evident in their simple three-part (A-B-A) form, their strongly profiled melodies with little emphasis on development, and in their prominent use of drone tones in the bass.

Schumann was not engaged in a form of musical “slumming” by evoking the musical idiom of the rural countryside. This was not Dolly Parton arranged for chamber ensemble. For him, the folk music of a nation was emblematic of its very soul, providing a bulwark against the cheapening of musical taste that “fashionable” music threatened to enact on an unschooled public. Hence, the codas of these pieces reveal flashes of sophistication that see them end more artfully than they began.

The first is entitled Vanitas vanitatum (from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) and is likely a humorous depiction of the drunken one-legged soldier in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. It has a heavy peasant swing to it but, like many an engaging tippler, is not without occasional touches of sly whimsy.

The drowsy second piece may make you yawn. Its long-held bass drone foreshadows Brahms’ famous lullaby. The third begins with an aura of mystery, its ‘sombre waltz’ opening yielding to more lyrical effusions remarkable for the high register of the cello in which they are set, and for the use of double stops in 6ths.

The fourth piece alternates between a nostril-expanding march and an equally breast-swelling lyricism while the fifth, the least ‘amateur’ and most developed of the set, pairs a piano part full of scampering double thirds with a wide-ranging and restless cello line of steely determination and wilful exuberance.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69

The furrowed brow of care is nowhere to be found in this remarkably sunny and serenely confident sonata from Beethoven’s middle period. Composed between 1806 and 1808, it overlaps the composer’s work on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies yet evinces none of the disruptive tumult of the celebrated C minor Symphony nor the wondrous, walk-in-the-woods pictorialism of the Pastorale. It seems perfectly content to live in its own world, a world characterized by an almost Mozartean sense of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.

Consider the opening. A rhythmically tranquil theme, beginning with a rising 5th, is presented by the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, its balanced mix of open and stepwise intervals symmetrically arranged on either side of the home-key note of A. This gesture then finds the perfect continuation of its thoughts in the luxuriantly relaxed and songful reply of the piano that drifts as high in its register as the cello ended low.

The second theme of the movement is similarly tongue-in-groove with the aforementioned, being a mirror image of the opening theme, inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. And throughout it all, cello and piano bask in a honeymoon of mutual admiration and support, even when touring through quite a bit of minor-mode drama and Italian-style pathos in the development section.

The second movement scherzo makes up for the first movement’s overall stability of pulse with a serving of jumpy syncopations and offbeat accents, enlivened by a large helping of contrapuntal side-chatter and imitative cross-talk. The two appearances of the movement’s much-less-skittish trio provide a measure of relief from the twitching, but in the end, even they get caught up in the general mêlée.

The third movement Adagio cantabile holds more surprises in store, however. Like a marathon runner who smiles at the press at the starting gun and then, after rounding the first turn, takes a cab to the finish line, this movement calls it quits after a mere 18 bars of lyrical reflection, proceeding directly to the last movement.

Cellist Leonard Rose thought this regrettable, but Glenn Gould saw it as part of an emerging pattern in Beethoven’s later works: a tendency to break down the walls between movements, to write sonatas as a single continuous thought:

It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end… to make things all of a piece.

Whatever the reason, the Allegro vivace last movement, in sonata form, is as toe- tapping a finale as could be imagined, its chuckling good humour kept bubbling by an almost constant 8th-note patter in the piano. And because this sonata lives in a thematic hall of mirrors, its main theme is an inversion of the piano’s delicious opening phrase in the first movement.

 

Leoš Janáček
Pohádka for Cello and Piano

Leoš Janáček is a one-off in music history. His is a voice of visionary ecstatic utterances, of mysterious murmurings evoking the folk music of his Moravian heritage, all tinged with the blurry soft hum of its favourite instrument, the cimbalom. As American conductor Kenneth Woods puts it:

Janáček comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janáček that sounds like his. His music is infinitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.

Janáček was fascinated by the study of speech rhythms and his music, while often misty and atmospheric, is strongly imprinted with the rhythm of the human voice. Utterly indifferent to the compositional conventions of his time, he creates his textures out of short bursts of melody that shimmer with sudden changes of modal colouring. These build to powerful emotional climaxes by the repetition of ostinato fragments that rarely seem to start on the strong beats of the bar.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano dates from 1910, and after numerous revisions, reached its final form in 1923. Like much of his instrumental music, this three-movement work is programmatic, loosely based on scenes from The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).

While the story is long and convoluted, the gist is that the handsome young Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, has had his soul promised to the King of the Underworld, Kashchei, but on mature consideration decides that he would much rather run away with the grumpy King’s fetching young daughter, Maria, a decision which leads to an adventure-filled chase over hill and dale until the two lovers finally reach safety and live happily ever after.

Just how Janáček’s score relates to the events of the tale is not really clear, but many interpreters see the cello in the role of the young prince, with his signature dotted- rhythm motif announced at the outset, and the piano as Maria. Steven Isserlis offers a very suggestive version of how the music illustrates the story, as follows.

The first movement, he says, opens with the dreamy setting of a magical lake where Ivan and Maria first meet. Enraptured by each other’s company, they fall into a love duet, but then big bad Kashchei arrives and they have to escape to the pounding of horses’ hooves.

The second movement is full of magic. In a nearby palace Ivan gets a spell put on him so he will fall in love with someone else and in a fit of pique Maria turns into a blue flower, prompting an achingly lyrical outpouring in the middle section. But a magician who does house calls finally releases them both and they rejoice in their good fortune in each other’s arms throughout the final movement.

 

Richard Strauss
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 6

While some people’s children are perfectly content to play in the mud for as long as the sun shines each day, taking only small breaks to tip over a vase or torture the household cat, others—the young Richard Strauss comes instantly to mind—prefer to while away their infant hours composing German lieder or small character pieces for piano, commensurate with their limited handspan on the keyboard.

To say that the composer of Til Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier was a prodigy is to state the obvious. Reportedly able to read musical scores before he could decipher the alphabet, Richard Strauss began his ‘mature’ period as a composer at an age when most of us were preparing for the high school prom. His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6 was begun when he was only 17 and completed two years later in 1883.

It is a radiantly confident work marked by boundless exuberance, passionate lyrical intensity, and no mean degree of compositional skill, its phrases driven forward with an irresistible harmonic momentum, parcelled out with consummate formal mastery. The cellist encounters a score extending over the entire range of his instrument while any pianist with a hand smaller than a catcher’s mitt will need to arpeggiate many of the work’s Brahmsian left-hand chords.

The first movement Allegro con brio opens the work with a heroic introduction leading to a first theme of rhapsodic sweep beginning high on the fingerboard over an undulating piano accompaniment, and this is followed by a sombre second theme, just as passionate, rising up from the lowest string. The development section percolates along, bubbling with imitative motivic play, until unable to hold off the urge to burst into a full-on fugato. Call this boy a show-off if you will, but he sure can write imitative counterpoint.

The second movement Andante ma non troppo is a richly hued but dark collection of ruminative melodies over which the lyrical spirit of Mendelssohn hovers benevolently, as it does over the Allegro vivo finale, with its mixture of coy drawing-room coquettishness and scherzo scamper.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2015

 

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