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Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. 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 in G minor 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.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, 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. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

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. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède 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 opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

PROGRAM NOTES: TETZLAFF-TETZLAFF-VOGT TRIO

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major K 502

The piano trio developed out of the ‘accompanied’ keyboard sonata, a makeshift compositional genre that attempted to compensate for the weak ‘tinkly’ tone of the early fortepiano (forerunner of the modern pianoforte) by the addition of a violin to reinforce the singing line in the right hand, and a cello to reinforce the bass in the left. In the 1780s, after technical advances in instrument manufacture gave the piano a louder and more penetrating tone, Mozart made concertos for piano and orchestra the centrepiece of his public performances in Vienna.

This new prominence of the piano as a solo instrument also affected the kinds of music written for private performance in the home. The five trios for piano, violin and cello that Mozart composed between 1786 and 1788 are all, like the concertos, three-movement works in which the piano plays the leading role. The first of these, the Piano Trio in B flat K 502, is particularly concerto-like in the flamboyance of its keyboard writing. But it also demonstrates the new independence that could be granted to the violin and cello once their ‘accompanying’ role was made obsolete.

The opening Allegro is marked by an extreme economy of means. Virtually the entire movement derives from the opening dialogue between the piano and the stringed instruments, predicated on the contrast between a nonchalant grouping of appoggiaturas in the piano and a sparkling ‘ear-tickle’ figure that chirps in reply from the violin. This opening theme also serves, unusually, as the movement’s second theme, scored differently and presented in a higher register. With such a concentration of musical materials in the exposition, it is not surprising that Mozart introduces a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section.

Among the concerto-like features of this movement are passages of ‘busy-work’ in the piano covered by more sustained melodic activity in the strings, and extended stretches of pearly piano runs leading either to a new formal section, or to a trilling cadence.

The second movement Larghetto is a lyrical outpouring of highly decorated melody, structured as a dialogue between piano and violin, with the cello largely playing a supporting role. A contrast to this florid melody is found in the much less artful middle section which, while departing from the same initial gesture, offers up a more naively simple brand of tunefulness.

The Allegretto finale is a companionable, gently playful rondo constantly enlivened by the same sprightly ‘ear-tickle’ figure that appeared in the first movement. The mood is consistently upbeat, with the piano at particular pains to make the texture sparkle with colourful passagework. Eventually even the cello feels emboldened enough to join in on the fun as it trades phrases back and forth with the violin in the closing section of the score.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with left hand high in the treble and the right hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. An almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly – or playfully, it’s hard to tell which – over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

Robert Schumann
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 63

There is a distinctly ‘Brahmsian’ feel about Schumann’s first piano trio, with its thick, almost orchestral scoring, richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. Composed in 1847, its densely woven compositional textures reflect Schumann’s recent study of Bach but its expressive manner is Romantic to the hilt.

At its opening we are plunged into a brooding drama already fully underway, a churning cauldron of sinuous yearning phrases, echoing back and forth in imitation, that seem to never end. The urgency and passionate intensity of this opening rides on the back of a continuous series of delayed resolutions and syncopations that weaken the strong beats of the bar. This is a feature shared by both the first and second themes of the movement. The development section is notable for a remarkable change in mood, a sudden break in the clouds signalled by a chiming accompaniment in the piano that introduces a completely new theme, a sort of hymn melody hauntingly intoned by the cello and violin playing near the bridge.

The 2nd movement scherzo has a spirit of boundless energy and focused enthusiasm that would do credit to the cheering fanbase of a local football team. Built on a series of driving scale figures echoing between the piano and strings in a peppy dotted rhythm, it smoothes out these scale figures in the more flowing central trio section, which is structured as a series of three-part canons.

The dramatic centre of gravity of this work is its slow movement, a lyrical outpouring of emotion with the violin and cello as its major protagonists while the piano digs deep into its low register to provide a rich bed of sonic support from below. The emotional range of this movement is exceptionally wide. The opening and closing sections are filled with forlorn sighs and seemingly aimless harmonic wanderings, but they enclose a rapturous middle section filled with expansive feelings of contentment and inner joy.

The last movement follows the model of the “triumphant finale” established by Beethoven with his Fifth Symphony, in which the minor mode changes to major and whatever dark clouds may have hovered over previous movements are swept away in a flood of joyous celebration. The tune chosen by Schumann for this celebration is stitched together from motives from the opening of the first movement and almost has the character of a patriotic hymn. But unlike the theme at the opening of the first movement, this finale theme just can’t wait to cadence – as often as possible – and the rhythmic pulse is definite and emphatic. A rondo-like alternation of moods cleverly disguises how the opening theme motivates the entire kaleidoscopic range of variations that drive this euphoric movement to its jubilant conclusion.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

PROGRAM NOTES: CASTALIAN STRING QUARTET

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D, Op. 76 No. 5

Having recently returned from his hugely successful visits to England and been liberated from financial woes, Haydn composed a set of six String Quartets, Op. 76 which were commissioned by Hungarian Count, Joseph Erdödy in 1797. Deviating from more traditional forms and establishing a new treatment of thematic material, these innovative features secured their place amongst his most ambitious chamber works. While employed under the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy II, his relatively light duties allowed him to compose multiple works, including the ever-popular Creation oratorio, published in 1799. Not only was this an intensification of his prior achievements, the added weight, character, and instant successes also ensured the resulting “Erdödy” quartets were considered a triumph.

The opening Allegretto, an elegant and dignified dance in triple time, is a typically Haydnian movement flourishing entirely out of a single melody. Serenity is soon lost, however, as a fiery outburst in D minor using rapidly furious scalar runs creates a desire for the unknown with a delightfully energetic coda in faster tempo that ends the movement. The tenderness of the largo in the remote key of F Sharp minor ensues with a particularly prominent singing and mournful nature. The lack of open strings results in an ethereal sound with both the cello and viola taking prominent melancholic solo roles before the opening theme returns. The minuet and trio is perhaps more mysterious and insecure, with duplet figures constantly disrupting the expected triple time. The cello opens the trio with grumbling scale material aplenty concealing deep secrets before an opening of light occurs as all parts join in homophony. Followed by the unbounded joy of a turbulent folk scene, the finale has the character of bagpipe music as the open fifths in the accompaniment allow each part takes their turn to gallop into the limelight. Its rapid pace and jagged phrasing makes it particularly challenging to pull off; however, its outright declamatory nature ensures the quartet ends on a high.

Gabriel Fauré
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121

The sole string quartet of Gabriel Fauré, completed shortly before his death, was composed in the summer of 1923. Keeping the work under wraps, wary of his declining health and uninvited comparisons to great composers of the past, Fauré wrote to his wife from Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy admitting “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!” Trained in the formal tradition of counterpoint since the age of 9, it is perhaps unsurprising that the work owes much to the weight of tradition while also incorporating youthful creativity that he perhaps so craved as he neared the end of his life.

The viola’s rising opening phrase answered by the first violin sets the tone for the Allegro with lamenting and contouring lines interacting in a form of ebb and flow ending in exhaustion. Although the tonality often feels murky, the defined sonata form provides structure as the development section proposes a more concise and contrapuntal construction with the viola once again having a particularly eloquent role. The central Andante (the most extensive movement) is contemplative, comprised of rising chromatic scales that simultaneously radiate youthful curiosity but also a sense of nostalgia. The owing melody is accompanied by pulsating quavers that eventually lead to individual parts emerging before sinking back into the reweaving of previous material. With the Allegro, the combined function of scherzo, as well as finale, is clear. The angular theme is introduced in the cello over a pizzicato accompaniment flitting between duple and triple beat divisions as a serenade and dance. Eventually reaching a jubilant E major conclusion, the work casts a distinct view of life and love regarded as a true representative of the composer himself as he seeks a quiet but profound farewell to life.

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1

Dedicated to his dear friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn, the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1 was composed in the space of a few weeks during the summer of 1842. A man of habit during his most productive periods, Schumann’s intense focus on a single genre at a time notably led to the composition of over 150 songs in 1840, which were succeeded by several large-orchestral works merely a year later. In that so-called chamber-music year of 1842, alongside the three quartets of Op. 41, he also wrote a piano quintet, a piano quartet and a set of Fantasy Pieces for Piano Trio inspired by the works of the masters before him: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. While Schumann’s string quartets are less frequently programmed, they have often been cited as the ‘missing links’ between the quartets of Mendelssohn and Brahms, a testament to his unique gifts as a composer.

As one of the finest contributions to the genre, the first quartet of Op. 41 begins in A minor, using falling motifs engaged in imitative counterpoint at every turn, wrought in anguish and sorrow. The curling lines are eventually unravelled breaking into a sunny Allegro in 6/8 and the submediant key of F major. A sense of rhythmic simplicity and classical restraint is finely nuanced before the galloping scherzo follows, vividly contrasting in character. Szforzando accents are abundant, immediately suggesting Mendelssohn- inspired sprightliness combined with fiery passion. The trio is in the major mode providing some lyrical contrast in a more genteel character. The divine theme of the Adagio follows, bringing together notions of idealised romance and lust particularly as the cello acquires the melody accompanied by pizzicato violins. However, the elegant sentiment is soon lost as the Presto plunges into forceful abandon, surging towards the unexpected interlude in A major. Quickly cast aside, the deluge of mighty textural celebration returns drawing the work to a finale of legendary proportions.

Program notes © Jessica Bryden

 

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.

 

 

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