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PROGRAM NOTES: Jerusalem Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth

Richard Strauss
String Sextet from Capriccio

Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?

The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)

The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.

*                      *                      *

The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.

Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.

The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.

Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.

 

Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.

Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.

But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.

*                      *                      *

The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.

The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.

The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.

The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70

In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.

Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.

*                      *                      *

The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).

The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.

The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

 

 

Program Notes: Behzod Abduraimov

 

Antonio  Vivaldi

Siciliana in D minor (arr.  J. S. Bach and Alfred Cortot)

Nothing could be more  Baroque than an arrangement of an arrangement. The Baroque was a period in music  history in which music  travelled freely between instruments and instrumental ensembles. Bach’s Organ  Concerto No. 5 for solo organ BWV  596, composed sometime between 1713 and 1714, was actually his transcription for organ of the slow  movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor Op. 3 No. 11 (RV 565)  for two violins,  strings, and continuo. Bach’s organ version was then  in turn  transcribed for piano  by the French  pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who  recorded his arrangement in 1937.

Written in the lilting dotted rhythm characteristic of the dance  form known as the siciliana,  it evokes  a gentle, pastoral mood tinged with tender melancholy, created by the characteristic use of Neapolitan (flat second scale degree) harmony.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor (arr.  Busoni)

For the Baroque organist the combination of toccata and fugue caught both heaven and earth  in its compositional grasp,  pairing fingers and brain,  keyboard virtuosity and contrapuntal mastery. In the 20th century Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor became one of the most popular and recognizable of organ works in this genre,  thanks  largely to its inclusion in Walt Disney’s  animated film  Fantasia (1940) and its subsequent championing by organists as diverse as the austere E. Power  Biggs  and the ever-flamboyant Virgil Fox.

The transcription of this organ work by pianist and industrious Bach-transcriber Ferruccio Busoni  (1866-1924) sets itself  the task of conveying in piano  sonority not only  the flamboyance of the Toccata’s virtuoso flourishes, but  also the complex and rich colouring of the thickly contrapuntal textures that make up the Fugue, with its chattering violinistic subject and many  pedal  points. For this the pianist’s right pedal  foot must be as skilled  as the fingers on his two hands.

 

Franz Schubert

Moments Musicaux Nos. 2 and 3 D. 780

The six small piano  pieces  that Schubert published in 1827 as Moments musicaux are as close as we can get  to hearing what a Schubert evening, a Schubertiade, must have sounded like with Schubert himself at the piano.  These pieces, while congenial in mood, are intimate, almost confidential in tone. They are meant for home  entertaining, and not  far removed from the spirit of song. The melodies are singable and the keyboard range  used extends little beyond the range  of the human  voice.

No. 2 in A flat opens  with a succession of lyrical melodic fragments of small range that stop and start as if a daydream were  being constantly interrupted, and then re-begun. Even the more  sustained tone of the middle section in the minor mode seems to circle  contemplatively around a single  note,  as if caught in a state of reverie.

No. 3 in F minor is the most popular piece  in the set and was subsequently published separately under  the exotic title Air Russe, presumably because  dance- like pieces  in the minor mode were  thought typical of Eastern Europe.  Remarkably homogenous in rhythm, its middle section in F major  is more  characteristically Viennese  than Russian.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata in F minor Op. 57 “Appassionata”

Beethoven’s 23rd  piano  sonata  of 1804-1805  is one of the works that,  along with his Fifth Symphony, stands  in the public imagination as emblematic of the composer’s explosive temperament; his angry pose of heroic resistance against all forces that would seek to tame  his indomitable will. Its outer movements, in particular, explored new terrain in terms of dynamic contrast, expressive range  and sheer technical difficulty. It was not  by chance  that he chose the key of F minor for this work,  as this key allowed him to write comfortably for the full keyboard range of his day, from F1 in the bass to a high  C7 in the treble, both of which appear in the score.

And  as he did in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven chose to make his point with a bare minimum of motivic material, the elements of the entire first movement all being presented on the first page  of the score. First there  is the eerie pattern of dotted rhythms that softly rise through an F-minor arpeggio to culminate in a mysterious trill.  Then the repeat of this gesture a semitone higher introduces the idea of Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened second degree of the scale). This is answered by a corresponding semitone drop in the bass, setting up an explosion of sonority that rips down from the high  treble to the very  bottom of the keyboard. The motivic intensity of this movement is so dense that even the second theme,  in A flat, is a mere  variant of the first.  The opening fireworks are balanced, formally, by an extended coda  (as in the Fifth Symphony) that first erupts in apocalyptic fury  and then  relents to end the movement in a quivering tremolo, seething with menace  still, that recedes into  the sonic distance.

The Andante con moto slow  movement, a theme with four variations, is everything that the first movement is not: emotionally stable  and harmonically conventional, its expressive gestures played out  within a relatively small range  circling around the middle of the keyboard.

The dying embers of fading anger  that ended  the first movement return to life in the third movement, announced by a clarion call to arms on an unstable diminished 7th chord. This finale  is a moto perpetuo of restless  16th notes  ranging feverishly in a combination of arpeggios and scale patterns over  wide  swathes of the keyboard.

Here, too, motivic economy is much  in evidence: witness how  the second theme is merely a reproduction of the first,  but  placed in the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher.  Things  come  to a head in a closing Presto  section, described by Sir András Schiff  as a kind  of “demonic czardas,” that stomps and skips until  a final whirlwind of moto perpetuo material returns to sweep  the work to its conclusion in a cascade  of broken chords rattling from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.

 

Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata  No. 6 is the first of the three  “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6, 7, and 8) written between 1939 and 1944 while  the Soviet Union  was at war with Nazi Germany. The Sixth  Sonata  was completed in 1940 and demonstrates well the obsessive rhythmic drive,  percussive attack, and dissonance-encrusted harmonies that characterize Prokofiev’s style  of piano  writing. The work comprises four movements which,  given  the extreme modernity of their  musical language, are laid out  in a surprisingly traditional pattern: sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo,  slow  third movement, and rondo finale.

The sonata  opens  with an arresting ‘motto’ that descends three  scale steps, doubled with first a major  and then  a minor 3rd (C natural then  C #), creating a brilliantly colourful bitonal effect that,  even if it weren’t stutteringly repeated almost 40  times  in the course  of the exposition, would be memorable. A more tranquil second subject offers a contrasting vision  of where things are going, but  both are put  through the wringer in a development section peppered with repeated notes  before the opening motto returns in a recapitulation of brutal directness enacted over  a keyboard range  of more  than six octaves.

The Allegretto second movement has been called  a “quick march” and with a dependable four staccato beats  to the bar its metrical regularity comes  as a welcome relief  after the chaotic events  of the first movement. Its espressivo middle section adds a more  expansive note  of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. This movement ends almost humorously as its colourful harmonic pulses veer into port in the very  last bar.

The slow  waltz Tempo  di valzer  lentissimo, while  lacking any real Viennese  sense of lilt, has a wonderful vulnerability about it that is quite touching despite, or perhaps because  of the searching quality of its constantly shifting inner  voices,  even in the more  turbulent middle section.

The work closes, like the other two War Sonatas, with a toccata of breathless drive that scampers playfully between tonal centres like it owned them  all. It becomes increasingly haunted, however, by the thematic ghosts of the first movement and ends firmly in the grip  of the opening motto.

 

Mily Balakirev

Islamey Op. 18

Islamey  is one of those  lesser known pieces  from the 19th century that nonetheless had a significant impact on successive generations of composers. It was quoted by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Scheherazade, by Borodin in Prince Igor, and it remains  in the orchestral repertoire today thanks  to arrangements made  by Alfredo Casella and Sergei Lyapunov.

Mily Balakirev was the unofficial leader  of the Russian Five, a handful of musicians including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and César Cui who  sought to ground their  works in authentic Slavic musical traditions. Balakirev was himself an avid collector of folk tunes, and it was on a visit  to the Caucasus in 1863 that he first encountered the dance  tune  known as ‘Islamey’  that would become the first theme of his eponymous work for piano  solo, subtitled Fantaisie orientale.

A folksong popular among the Tatars  of Crimea  forms the subject of the work’s more  tranquil and lyrical middle section.

Islamey  was likely  composed as a virtuoso showpiece for Nikolai Rubinstein to perform at a concert held in late 1869 at the Free Music School  in St. Petersburg, founded by Balakirev. Rubinstein’s subsequent remark that he found certain passages  “difficult to manage” gained the work a reputation for being unplayable and it has doubtless driven many  a pianist into  physiotherapy—perhaps even psychotherapy—for attempting it. Scriabin was said to have injured his right hand while  trying to learn it, and Ravel famously remarked that his Gaspard  de la nuit was an attempt to write “a piece  more  difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey.”

Among the interpretive challenges the work presents is the choice of tempo. Long  stretches of interlocking passagework between the hands need to be able to “speak” well on the keyboard if the peppery rhythmic vitality and dancelike character of its opening theme are to be captured. Otherwise all one hears is a blur  of notes.  For Islamey  is more  than a mere  circus  act. It stands  at the apex of Romantic-era works for the virtuoso pianist and counts as a significant contribution to the cause of 19th-century musical nationalism in Russia.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

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

 

 

PROGRAM NOTES: CHRISTIAN GERHAHER & GEROLD HUBER

By Christian Gerhaher

This programme of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set to music by Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm was conceived as a tribute to the eight great poetic hymns written during the poet’s Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s and 1780s. I had always regretted that Schubert had set only three of these outstanding masterworks—Prometheus, Ganymed and Kronos—and so over a period of several years I developed the idea of having contemporary composers complete the cycle. When I asked Wolfgang Rihm two years ago if he might be interested in working on some of the five remaining texts, his first reply was that he normally chooses his texts himself. Nevertheless, two weeks later I had his setting of Goethe’s Harzreise in my letterbox. This was then the core around which to build the second half of this recital. For coming recitals Gerold Huber is planning to compose the Sturmlied, and I am sure we will find a solution for Wanderer and Seefahrt, as well.

 

Franz Schubert

Eight Songs

Schlafe! was willst du mehr?

Sleep! What more can you desire?

By listening to the first group of songs it is easy to understand what Schubert’s contemporaries meant when they described his new genre as being not really ‘Lieder’ in the traditional sense. They understood his way of setting poetic lines to music as creating Gesänge, i.e., ‘chants’. In this way of writing, the words no longer simply underlined more or less suitably affective music, but rather this great innovator managed to find appropriate musical equivalents for the texts of the pre-existing poems. This explains why we no longer find music laid out in balanced and symmetrical musical ‘periods’. Instead we hear phrases invented in a semantically ambitious way, following the sense and rhythm of the language, without just cheaply illustrating it.

A good example is Sehnsucht (Longing), in which two poetic themes are intertwined. On the one hand, there is the well-established theme of the distant lover who uses Nature to pass on his messages to the beloved. On the other hand, there is the loving individual who, reminiscent of Zeus, takes on different shapes in the natural environment to tell his love of his longing for her, evoking several epiphanies of being loved in her mind. A strophic solution would never have been suitable to translate this complex and lambent poem into musical meaning. Schubert’s charming, virtuous and metamorphic music, though, definitely is.

Schubert created two successful versions of An den Mond (To the Moon), a poem comprised of nine verses. In his first version, he created a song with four musical strophes of two verses each. In order to fit the poem into the musical form he had to omit one verse. The later version, performed here, once again starts with two double-verses but then resolves the problem by changing the musical form in order to include all of the remaining text. The result is one of Schubert’s most important and best-loved songs.

The following poem, Geheimes (Secret), comes from a later period in Schubert’s lieder production. He adopts here a relatively rigorous framework of musical periods, taking only minimal musical liberties in order to depict a situation from the later ‘classical’ period in Goethe’s oeuvre. Both Goethe and Schubert express themselves clearly but economically, colourfully but moderately, with humour and yet with severity. It is the language that Goethe developed under the spell of the Austrian actress and dancer Marianne von Willemer when writing The Book of Love in Der West-östliche Divan (1819), which Schubert depicted in his own modest, again utterly appropriate language.

It is perhaps understandable only with historical hindsight why Goethe did not appreciate—or perhaps could not understand—how great Schubert’s achievement was in effecting an Archimedean turnaround from baroque-affective restriction to romantic-empathetic deliverance in his vocal music settings. The poet was probably too deeply influenced by his troglodytically conservative friend, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, and possibly anguished by the might and power of Schubert’s musical language, which seemed to be able to subsume pre-existing poetry into itself, poetry which Goethe may have felt uneasy seeing become only part of a lied.

Even if I am convinced that a lied is not a mini-drama, Nachtgesang could form a subtle exception to this postulation. In five little verse-acts his conviction that her sleep is alleviated and removed from the vulgar world to a better ideal world (with a rhapsodic peripety in the third verse) must give way to the recognition that her alleged sleep (Hypnos) in reality might be its kin: death (Thanatos). Schubert used the refrain at the end of every verse as an opportunity to create a strophic song, whose parts are mystically merged by the fact that the second-last line is always the opening line of the next verse (even the fifth and last one is again the start of the poem in the first verse). With almost no words (there are only ten rhyme words in all) and the most reticent music, it is an enormous challenge to express this horrific progression in an adequately humble way.

The group is concluded by one of the most often misunderstood songs. Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s Lament) is nothing like an idyll, but is rather an expression of complete despair. The abandoned lover is not helped, but terrorized by the elements of the natural setting that surround him. The image of being wounded and helpless depicts the imaginative polar opposite to the depiction in the opening poem and song.

 

Wolfgang Rihm

Six Songs from Goethe-Lieder

Zum Erstaunen bin ich da

I am here to marvel at it.

The selection of late Goethe poems in six out of the twelve songs by Wolfgang Rihm shows a very different poet. While not always at his most sympathetic, he at the very least expresses himself in a playful and charming way as the great old Privy Councillor who gives advice for how to lead a reasonable life. He is uplifting, wholesome, and joyful—the latter only with restrictions. As might be expected, the musical setting is not a feast for the senses, but it represents perfectly Goethe’s Gedankenlyrik (his ‘thought-poetry’). I understand Rihm’s early Goethe-songs as a reflection on the underlying poetic thoughts of the texts, and less as independent and compelling contributions to the cause of stirring musical entertainment. The last poem is from Goethe’s late (and slightly wordy) novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1807-1821), a continuation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796), the significance of which earlier work can hardly be overestimated, especially in the influence it exercised over German vocal chamber music throughout the entire nineteenth century.

 

Franz Schubert

Gesänge des Harfners

Possibly the most utterly touching, but nevertheless most cryptic figure in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the Harfner, the harp-player, the tragic and incestuous father of enchanting young tomboy Mignon. The Harfner is the only character in this Bildungsroman (novel of character development) who does not evolve. He simply cannot survive the heartbreaking sorrow that overwhelms him. Especially notable is Goethe’s harsh play with and interconnection of the words Einsamkeit (solitude) and Alleinsein (aloneness), which he uses to deliberately and cynically evoke people’s compassion.

 

Franz Schubert

Four Songs

Aufwärts! Umfangend umfangen!

Aloft! Embracing embraced!

Goethe was young, radical and—in his own opinion—perfectly capable of explaining the world in a new and natively German way when he joined with other poets of his generation in the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). Not all of his fellow travellers in this literary fashion would move on to adopt a more classical style, as he and Schiller did, but the inner drive to create ambitious works, to strive for perfection in search of the absolute achievement motivated many writers of the movement. The eight hymn poems written by Goethe stand out for their sheer hilarity, their radiance, and their powerful juvenility.

In Mahomets Gesang, for example, the life of the prophet Mohammed is narrated by comparing him to a growing stream, which gathers all waters around, becoming in the end an ocean. This wonderfully meandering, but sadly unfinished song is surrounded by a brace of the most important of Schubert’s songs: Prometheus and Ganymed.

Prometheus presents the unlimited aspiration of pure Genius, with its disrespect and scorn for the Creator made proverbial in drama by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804), as well as by authors of the Sturm und Drang period, who found its themes very much in line with their own pretensions. The idea behind Prometheus is conveyed in theGoethe-coined expression Verselbstung (selfing). By contrast, Entselbstigung (de-selfing) is the ruling principle of its companion poem, Ganymed, which tells the Greek mythological story of the handsome youth taken up into heaven on a cloud to become the cupbearer of Zeus. Schubert does not represent the poem’s action in terms of a dialogue between the two characters of the drama, but I can hardly imagine a more perfect depiction of the process of euphoric emanation.

An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) bears in reality no clear relationship to actual Greek myth, but rather exemplifies how in classical thought, Nature and the world have the same meaning: reason enough for the perceptive young man of the poem to assimilate and to enter into its everlasting patterns. In this poem the aspiring young, thirsty and impatient passenger urges his coachman to go ever faster and faster (Chronos being the god of Time). He seems to hold his entire lifetime in his hands and in this overview he includes and already embraces his own death. But what a death, with important and heroic figures such as Orcus gathered in the underworld awaiting him with delirious applause. This is the young Goethe’s alluring prospect of his own life. One can hardly imagine a song more powerful and demanding than this.

  

Wolfgang Rihm

Harzreise im Winter

Then comes Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey Through the Harz Mountains). Barely comprehensible at a first glance, this poem tells a story out of Goethe’s own life. The fortunate poet is leaving a hunting party and puts himself in danger by leaving the secure path at the foot of the snowy mountain known as the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz mountain range of central Germany and home of the witches’ Walpurgisnacht. He seeks the track of a sensitive young man—like Werther, the protagonist of one of his novels—who has become a despiser of the world. Here the subject of this poetic hymn becomes clear: it is Love, which has the duty to conciliate bliss and harm. The last scene ends on the summit of the Brocken in a euphoric expression of thanks. This poem is the last from this cycle, and the least radical. It evokes in me the connotation of a lucky version of the Way of the Cross and this I feel to be ideally represented by Wolfgang Rihm’s musical setting. Nearly a cantata, it wonderfully blends narrative with meditative and dramatic elements, totally in the service of the text’s meaning, but with tremendous sensuousness when compared with the first six songs.

 

Franz Schubert

Willkommen und Abschied

            Du gingst, ich stund und sah zur Erden…

            You went, and I stood looking down…

The earlier Sturm und Drang poem Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and Farewell) finally shows Goethe the young lover, who frequently left a trail of passionate women behind him in his travels. Like love-corpses, they could never after manage to overcome the impression he had made on them: including his own sister, Charlotte von Stein, and Friederike Brion, the parson’s daughter whom he met and left near Strassburg, during his idyllic time in Sesenheim in the early 1770s. The disturbing thing is the poem’s first version (quoted above) in which it is not he who is leaving but she. Perhaps it means that she was leaving the departing rider, but it could also express resistance to the young and reckless lover’s guilt.

 

VRSchubert- Day 1: Lewis on Schubert

 

In anticipation and celebration of Paul Lewis’ performance of the Late Schubert Sonatas on October Tuesday, October 23, the VRS is embarking on 23 days of tweets, Facebook and blog posts about the life and work of Franz Schubert and this celebrated interpreter of his music.

Follow us daily on Twitter with the hashtag #VRSchubert, visit facebook.com/vancouverrecitalsociety, or check back in with us each day at vanrecital.com/tag/vrschubert/.


Paul Lewis has been described by Gramophone Magazine as “arguably the finest Schubert interpreter of his generation.” Modest as he is, here is the artist’s perspective on performing music by Franz Schubert:

“This is the music I love, and my hope is that the people who come and hear it can love it too. That the experience will be long-lasting – and if it is, it will be because of Schubert.” – Paul Lewis

Spread the word and save: if you re-tweet or re-post any of our VRSchubert posts, you have the opportunity to save 25% on regularly priced tickets. Call our box office to reserve your tickets: 604-602-0363.

Small print: discount on A, B, C, D price section not to be combined with other offers.

Andras Schiff: on playing Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier

Senza pedale ma con tanti colori
(Without the pedal but with plenty of colours)

Playing J. S. Bach’s keyboard music on the modern piano, pianists are confronted with various fundamental questions. The answers to these are never simple.

For example: what is the “correct” instrument for the Well-Tempered Clavier? The clavichord, the harpsichord, the organ, the pedal-harpsichord?

Is it permitted to play Bach on an instrument that he couldn’t have known? If it isn’t, whose permission do we need to ask?

What is the right tempo and character for a particular prelude or fugue and how do we find it? How wide is the dynamic range in this music and does this vary from instrument to instrument or from venue to venue?

How do we phrase or articulate a certain passage or a fugal subject? Is there need for more ornamentation? For less? For none?

Which edition is the best one?

Each of these questions – and many more – needs to be asked and thought about.  Answering them convincingly  requires experience, intelligence and – to quote C.P.E.Bach – “buon gusto”, good taste. Decisions need to be made and it takes courage to say: this is the way I want to play this piece, knowing that it will not be to everyone’s liking.

One of the biggest problems is the sustaining pedal, and not just in Bach. This ingenious device enables the player to raise the dampers from the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely with any notes being played. Beethoven was the first great composer who specifically asked for its application. In his c-sharp minor sonata Op.27 Nr.2 the entire first movement is to be played “senza sordini”, with raised dampers (with pedal).

The effect is magical, the harmonies are washed together, creating sonorities that are truly revolutionary.

It would be reasonable to assume that pianists would follow what the composer had asked for; after all Beethoven was quite a decent musician and he certainly knew what he wanted. Wishful thinking, since in fact ninety-nine per cent of them fully ignore the creator’s instructions and diligently change the pedal at every change of harmony. WHY? Because, they argue, this effect would have sounded different on Beethoven’s fortepiano than it does on its modern successor. Have these people played on Beethoven’s Broadwood? No, they certainly haven’t but they pretend to know . Well, I beg to differ because I’ve played and recorded on it. The sound, the volume and the mechanics may be different but the actual musical idea is exactly the same. A dissonance remains a dissonance, regardless of the instrument.

What does all this have to do with Bach? Quite a lot. The sustaining pedal was not at his disposal on any of the keyboard instruments of his time. That means that the pieces that he wrote could be played without the use of the pedal which didn’t exist. Consequently, the very same works can also be played on the modern piano, with eight fingers, two thumbs and no feet. (The one exception is the a-minor fugue in Book 1 of the WTC; its final bars can’t be played with two hands alone, this being a composition for the organ. Here the use of the sostenuto pedal – the middle one of the three – is advisable.)

Does this mean that we have to disregard this “crown jewel” of the instrument when playing Bach? Not necessarily.

It can be used intelligently and discreetly to assist the lack of sonority, especially in venues with dry acoustics. However, let’s not underestimate the danger of damage that can be caused by indiscriminate use of the pedal. The piano is not an automobile, where the right foot is permanently on the accelerator pedal. When string players (and singers) use vibrato all the time, on every note, it’s unbearable to listen to. The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation.

Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice-leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility and one can only create an illusion of achieving it.

To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy, it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.

An eminent pianist colleague of mine recently reprimanded me for my “abstinence”. His argument was that all the great pianists of the past have played Bach with lots of pedal and we must follow their example. To me this reasoning is not very convincing. The late George Malcolm, a great musician, best known as a harpsichordist, taught me to play Bach without pedal and to enjoy the delights of purity.

Once a successful young virtuoso pianist came to him asking if he could play for him Bach’s D-major toccata. Malcolm agreed, the young man took his place at the keyboard, put his right foot on the pedal, raised his arms, and here Malcolm suddenly exclaimed:”Stop!”. “But I haven’t played a note yet!” said the victim. “No, but you were just about going to.”

To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours. In my imagination  each tonality corresponds to a colour. The WTC with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy. Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence and therefore C-major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in b-minor which is the key to death. Compare the fugue of Book 1 to the Kyrie of the b-minor mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles we have all the other colours, first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between c-minor and d-minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to e-minor), the greens (F-major to g-minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to a-minor), browns (B-flat), grey (B-major) and finally black.

Of course this is a very personal interpretation and each of you may have a different opinion. Nevertheless if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.

András Schiff
Firenze, May 2012

LEILA GETZ: HATS ‘ON’ TO TWO EXTRAORDINARY MUSICIANS!

Following their incredible journey through the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas in three concerts for the Vancouver Recital Society, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov were anxious to blow off excess steam and see something of Vancouver before they left for their next engagement in San Francisco.

So I, as the tour guide, and Allison Hart, one of the concert sponsors and the driver for the tour, set out with the musicians on Sunday after they had changed and packed up. We headed down to Granville Island where the plan was to take them on a quick tour of the market before driving through Stanley Park, and then continue on to West Vancouver, where we were to meet the rest of the Beethoven Project sponsors for dinner.

At Granville Island we re-fueled the musicians with strong coffee and literally ran around showing them the wonders of the market. Then, we walked over to the Net Loft into the craft gallery where Alexander made a purchase. Isabelle walked across the corridor and spied Edie’s Hat Shop. “Oh,” she said, “I love hats!”  In we went. The young salesman pointed out that the store would be closing in three minutes, to which Isabelle responded, “Oh, you may not want to close in three minutes as you have some serious customers!”

As it turns out, Isabelle has the perfect head and face for hats. Every single one she tried on looked fabulous on her. Meanwhile, Alexander (who is a HUGE fan of Fred Astaire) asked whether they carried Top Hats. And of course, as you can see from the photograph, they do!

We left Edie’s hats 45 minutes later having purchased a total of 6 hats among us. Now there was no time to drive through Stanley Park, but we were wide awake from our hat shop adventure and decided to wear our hats to dinner. We turned a few heads, and had a wonderful dinner.

Is this really why artists so enjoy coming to Vancouver? 

PROGRAM NOTES: THE BEETHOVEN PROJECT


Ludwig van Beethoven

The Ten Violin Sonatas

Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Op. 12) in 1797-98. Six more appeared by early 1803, making a fairly compressed time span for a medium in which Beethoven was to write just one more in 1812. All but the tenth were written before the composer was 32 years of age. Yet all of them, to varying degrees, show Beethoven straining at the reins that in his early years still tied him to the genteel world of eighteenth-century classicism.

Although we refer to these ten works as “violin sonatas,” in the original scores the music is invariably identified as being “for the fortepiano and a violin” (rather than the other way around). Such was usually the case with eighteenth-century works of this type, but it was hardly true with Beethoven, where we can see in even the first sonata the nearly equal partnership of the two instruments. In these ten sonatas, Beethoven explores the ways and means of combining two voices of unequal sound mass into a dramatic partnership and coherent unity, “a colloquy of reciprocal enrichment,” in Louis Biancolli’s words.

Beethoven was renowned in Vienna for his prowess as a pianist, but he was also intimately familiar with the violin. He had taken lessons as a youth in Bonn, and later, at the age of 24, he sought further study with Ignaz Schupannzigh in Vienna. Hence, Beethoven was in an ideal position to explore the expressive potentialities and technical challenges of the violin as well as of the piano, some of which may sound “easy” to the casual listener, but which even today demand superior musicians to do them justice. Violins were undergoing changes in construction during Beethoven’s lifetime (longer neck, fingerboard and strings; higher bridge; greater tension on the strings), resulting in greater range and volume of tone. These did not go unnoticed by Beethoven, who made steadily increasing technical demands on the instrument.

Concertgoers wishing to delve deeper into the intricacies of these sonatas can be directed to books written by two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Joseph Szigeti (The Ten Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, 1965), and Abram Loft (Violin and Keyboard, Volume II, 1973).

Program 1 (May 26, 8:00pm)

Sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12, no. 1

Right from the opening of the first sonata, there is a vigour and urgency to the music nonexistent in the many violin sonatas of Mozart and his contemporaries. Furthermore, there are numerous unconventional key relationships and excursions into remote tonalities. Notice that the violin, not the piano, first presents the lyrical theme that immediately follows the opening gesture. As for the new-found energy and urgency of the music, one can point to but a single pause for breath in the entire first movement (at the repeat of the exposition). The slow central movement is an orthodox theme and variations set, while the finale is a rondo, written in a lively, playful style, and which incorporates several examples of the rough humour for which Beethoven later became renowned.

Sonata no. 2 in A major, Op. 12, no. 2

“Where’s the beef?” Some concertgoers may remember this catchy slogan used for a promotion by a hamburger chain some years back. Similarly, one might well ask, “Where’re the themes?” in the first movement of Beethoven’s second violin sonata. In fact, there really aren’t any. Themes and melodies are not what this movement is “about.” Clearly, however, it is not the meagre musical material Beethoven works with that sets the sonata’s musical standard, but rather how he manipulates it. Not one listener in a hundred is likely to fault Beethoven for lack of a nice tune, such is the music’s jocular tone, harmonic sideswipes, impish humour and fascinating interplay of violin and piano. The slow movement is based on a lyrical, melancholic theme in A minor. Each of its two parts is announced by the piano, then repeated by the violin. The concluding movement is a high-spirited rondo with frequent humourous touches.

Sonata no. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, no. 3

The third sonata features a sense of grandeur, power and majesty found in few other works of Beethoven’s early years. In addition, the piano writing is often of near-heroic proportions, by far the most substantial in the first three sonatas, and scarcely equalled in any of the subsequent sonatas. The violin is far from idle, but much of the piano work might just as well have been channeled into a sonata for solo piano. The second movement constitutes the emotional centre of gravity in this sonata. This is the first adagio we encounter in the traversal of these sonatas, and one of the finest slow movements in early Beethoven. To Abram Loft, it is music of “wonderful, timeless tranquillity … a lovely bouquet, fragrant with gracious melody and luxuriant turns and roulades.” The finale is a rollicking, joyous rondo with a catchy if hardly distinctive main theme. Frequent contrasts of dynamics and register are a constant feature of the movement.

Sonata no. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

The ninth of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano is the grandest and most impressive of them all. It is by far the longest, is the most difficult, contains the richest textures, and to a greater extent than any other, puts both musicians on an absolutely equal footing throughout. Beethoven originally wrote his Kreutzer Sonata for a man named Bridgetower, but they had a falling out and Beethoven dedicated it instead to a certain Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the work and even called it “outrageously unintelligible.”

Of the ten sonatas, only the Kreutzer has a slow introduction, a feature usually reserved for grand, imposing works Throughout the opening movement the violinist is called upon to execute numerous chords in triple and quadruple stops (playing across three and four strings simultaneously). The theme of the Andante con variazioni, the longest movement in all ten sonatas, is lofty, elegant and noble in its simplicity. In the finale, the rapid, nearly continuous rhythmic pattern of long-short-long-short belongs to the tarantella, a dance that originated in Italy and, according to legend, served to counteract the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider.

Program 2 (May 27, 11:00am)

Sonata no. 6 in A major, Op. 30, no. 1

Op. 30 dates from1802, the year Beethoven began sketching the mighty Eroica Symphony, a work as far removed as could be imagined from the pervasive geniality and charm of the first of the Op. 30 sonatas. But the two works share a common characteristic in the compositional process at work in their opening subjects. In the sonata, piano and violin share the material, with each hand of the piano part a separate element in itself. This means there are actually three strands of melodic material at work, intertwining and coming together to form a coherent whole. Similarly, in the Eroica, cellos, violins and winds all contribute individual melodic strands to the complex first subject. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement is in ternary form, with the outer sections distinguished by the persistent dotted rhythm (long-slow-long-slow), the inner portion by gently rippling triplets in the accompaniment. The final movement is a theme and variations set in which violin and piano take turns in presenting the melodic strands of the theme.

Violin sonata no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2

Without question, this sonata is one of the grandest in the violinist’s repertory. It is a work of drama, passion, power and almost symphonic scope. The key of C minor immediately alerts us to music of serious import. Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, this is the “biggest” in feel and scope. It is also one of just three (Nos. 5 and 10 are the others) to boast four movements rather than the standard three.

The first movement opens with a darkly mysterious, almost menacing subject divided into several epigrammatic components, a subject eminently suitable for development later on. The strongly contrasting second subject in E-flat major, march like yet playful, is introduced by the violin. The slow movement is one of heavenly beauty. The scherzo movement truly lives up to its title (“joke”) – witty, playful, full of rhythmic quirks and rough humour. The finale returns to C minor and, unusually for a large-scale work that opens in the minor tonality, finishes in the minor as well. Relentless dramatic tension and emotional strife mark this uncompromising movement.

Sonata no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3

This has been dubbed the “charmer” of the Op. 30 sonatas. Like many other works in G major, it breathes the air of unspoiled nature, untroubled emotions, lively spirits and gaiety. Indeed, Beethoven composed the sonata during the pleasant summer days he spent in the beautiful woods outside Vienna at Heiligenstadt.

The first movement is in standard sonata form with two themes in contrasting keys, a development section and a recapitulation. The central movement is neither slow nor a minuet (Beethoven specifies the tempo of a minuet, not a minuet itself). It consists of a series of slightly varied restatements of the opening subject, all set to music of enchanting loveliness and rococo grace. The final movement, a rondo, bubbles along with vivacious good humour and a strong suggestion of a peasant’s bagpipe droning away in the bass.

Program 3 (May 27, 3:00pm)

Sonata no. 4 in A minor, Op. 22

Abram Loft assesses the A-minor sonata in these terms: “In no other Beethoven sonata will the duo find a greater challenge to its sense of drama, of timing, of musical repartee … It is one of the most exciting pieces that amateur or professional can play.”

There is much that is unusual about this sonata. It is one of just two in a minor key (the seventh in C minor is the other) Its relentless first movement is in 6/8 metre, unusual for an opening movement of a sonata, as is the tempo marking of presto. Still another unorthodox point to note is the introduction of a new theme (in F major) within the development section, and still another one (in A minor) at the juncture of the development and recapitulation. The playful second movement is neither a slow movement nor a scherzo, but combines aspects of both and supports three full themes. The rondo finale returns to the driving momentum of the opening movement, its urgent main theme, always initiated by the piano, returning frequently and unvaried while in between statements of this theme are found a wealth of episodes contrasting in mood, texture, key, dynamic level and register.

Sonata no. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (Spring)

In the Spring Sonata of 1801, we see Beethoven poised on the threshold of his second-period style. He has still not completely bid farewell to the genteel world of Classicism – graceful themes, transparent textures and traditional accompaniment figures are found in abundance – yet mingling with these attributes we also find a robustness and vigour, a boldly independent spirit straining to burst the bonds of classical restraint and moderation.

This is the most popular of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It opens with a flowing theme of spontaneous lyricism and gentle radiance, suggestive immediately of the freshness and beauty of spring that has earned the sonata its nickname. The second movement is deeply felt, so much so that some listeners find in it an anticipation of some of Schubert’s most expressive pages.

Op. 24 is Beethoven’s first violin sonata to have four movements. The “extra” movement is extremely short (barely a minute), but it perfectly bridges the sublime simplicity of the second movement and the gracious lyricism of the finale. The finale is a more or less conventional rondo.

Sonata no. 10 in G major, Op. 96

A gap of ten years separated Beethoven’s tenth and final violin sonata from his ninth. The biggest differences between this sonata and its predecessor – easily observed when the two are played in tandem, are its more intimate and restrained tone, gentler sonorities, and the avoidance of drama and heroics.

Like the Kreutzer Sonata, the first movement of the tenth contains three themes, the first of which is imbued with the gentle warmth and grace. The slow movement presages Beethoven’s late style – an adagio of ineffable beauty and restrained exaltation. Here, writes violinist Abram Loft, the players are “as close to paradise as one can approach in this world.” The short and jocular Scherzo in G minor brings us down to earth from the rarefied heights of the previous movement. The finale is a theme and variations movement. The theme has a folksy quality, and proceeds with a gentle swagger in unbuttoned (Beethoven liked the term aufgeknöpft for such music) good humor. Beethoven toys with our expectations as the music makes little detours through changes of tempo and ventures into new harmonic regions, as if the composer were reluctant to bid farewell to his last violin sonata.

SOME THOUGHTS ON OUR UPCOMING 12-13 SEASON

 

Today we want to share with you a few thoughts and facts about our recently announced 2012-2013 season:

UP FIRST: On October 5 András Schiff will open the 33rd season with an all-Bach program. In fact, András was one of the first artists who launched the Vancouver Recital Society in 1981. Like so many artists who followed, he made his Canadian debut in Vancouver.

CHEZ NOUS: The earliest performances were presented at the Granville Island Stage, but the Vancouver Playhouse was soon chosen as the ‘home’ for the Vancouver Recital Society. In the upcoming season we will present six afternoon performances at this downtown location.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: The VRS established its second ‘home’ soon after the opening of the Chan Centre at UBC in the spring of 1997. Now going into our 16th (!) season at this venue, we continue to present four afternoon performances along with four evening performances. Of course, Mr. Schiff adds a very special ninth performance at the Chan Centre.

In total, the 2012-2013 consists of 15 performances of which 10 are scheduled on Sunday afternoons.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT: we are very excited with our new, low “entry” price. For the first time it is possible to select a series of four performances for only $80 – or $20 for each performance.

AH, TO BE YOUNG AGAIN: our young audience members now have greater access then ever before with our Youth Club and Ru35 programs. Throughout the season, tickets can be had for as little as $16.

A POPULARITY CONTEST?: In our recent survey you ranked your favourite composers and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin came out on top. Happily, our 2012-2013 artists will give us a lovely dose of these top-rankers. As we have seen, Bach is in the best hands with András Schiff. Schubert is well represented throughout the season, most notably by Paul Lewis whose program is dedicated to the monumental three late piano sonatas. Adding to the Schubert repertoire are Simon Trpceski and Behzod Abduraimov. Behzod also brings us the ever-popular “Appassionata” sonata by that ever-popular composer, Beethoven. Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan brings Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, and pianist Stephen Hough includes Nocturnes on his program.

2012-2013 is shaping up to be a most exciting season. Series tickets are currently offered at exceptional prices with fantastic benefits (complimentary parking passes!). Call our office at 604-602-0363 and we’ll be happy to discuss all our subscription options.

LEILA GETZ: ONE OF THE MOST PERFECT CONCERT EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE

 

Last night I had one of the most perfect concert experiences of my life. I have been attending a conference of music managers and presenters in Budapest. I discovered that baritone Christian Gerhaher was singing an all-Schubert song recital in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was sold out, but after 33 years in the concert presenting world, I was able to pull strings and, to my utter astonishment, I became a guest of the Konzerthaus. So, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna (where I’d been just the week before) to hear the performance. The distance between Vienna and Budapest seems similar to the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Except that, of course, one just sails through borders from one country to the next.

The Konzerthaus was packed to overflowing. There were 750 seats filled in the hall with an additional 50 seats on stage. I know this because I asked the Intendant of the Konzerthaus. I also enquired about their wonderful piano and he told me that they select and rent a new Steinway from the factory every two years.

I am guilty of over-using the word “extraordinary”, but there is simply no other word to describe Gerhaher’s voice (or voices, as he seems to have so many of them). He inhabits the text and the music he is singing. He simply delivered what Schubert intended when he wrote the songs. Nothing more and nothing less. His regular pianist is Gerold Huber and the two of them together are as one. Right down to the tiniest nuance. I can understand why Andras Schiff has chosen to invite Gerhaher to Carnegie Hall for his “Perspectives” Series. And of course, we, at the VRS are the beneficiaries of this collaboration. We jumped at the opportunity when we heard about it.

If you are a serious, discerning music lover you must not miss the Gerhaher/Schiff performance at the Chan on May 14. Don’t expect a larger than life personality like Bryn Terfel (nothing wrong with him!) but expect the most perfect delivery of song you will experience for many, many years to come. It is both deeply gratifying and humbling at the same time.

Leila (en route from Vienna to Budapest).

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